January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Taralyn Tan Ph.D. Curriculum Fellow Harvard Medical

When it comes to overused expressions, “America’s obesity epidemic” surely must be atop the list….and rightfully so. We are truly in the middle of a health crisis (and if you don’t believe me, go to the CDC’s website and watch the very depressing animation that illustrates the obesity trend in this country over the past fifteen years: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html). In 1994, no state had an obesity rate (obesity being defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of thirty or greater) above 19%. In 2008, only one state (way to go, Colorado) had an obesity rate less than 20%, while six states (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) weighed in with an obesity prevalence greater than or equal to 30% of the population. The statistics may be new, but I doubt that there are many people in this country who were not aware of this problem. Yet, for all of the repetition – for as often as we have been clubbed over the head with the ominous “obesity epidemic” phrase – we as a society don’t seem to have developed a successful strategy to reverse the trend. What’s the problem?

The obvious culprit is food. I don’t know when exactly on the gastronomical timeline American cuisine decided to take a horribly ill-advised detour, but today our country is notorious for junk food. I doubt that you could find such a panoply of fat-filled treats, empty calories, and artificial preservatives anywhere else on earth. Now while we can’t snap our fingers to make it magically disappear, we can employ strategies to neutralize the threat (or temptation). The problem, though, is that we aren’t. We need to take responsibility as individuals before we can ever hope for “society” as a whole to defeat the obesity epidemic in this country.

Society will provide us with easy fixes. Shortcuts. But in the long run, these are actually detrimental. In taking these shortcuts, we skirt the real issues. We don’t need artificial sweeteners to lull us into thinking that we can outsmart our bodies by ingesting novel laboratory compounds. We don’t need the I-am-good-for-you green checkmarks of food-labeling campaigns like Smart Choices (which, incidentally, places its stamp of approval on such nutritional gems as Froot Loops and Fudgsicle Bars). And for most of us, we don’t need medicinal intervention. Obesity drugs, the dea ex machina (or so the pharmaceutical companies would have you believe) of this whole obesity epidemic, present their own set of considerations and drawbacks. Just look at the recent FDA investigation of preliminary data suggesting that the obesity drug Meridia (Abbott Laboratories) may actually increase one’s risks for cardiovascular problems.

No, instead of ersatz sugar, checkmarks, and pills, we need to become educated consumers and learn to turn over a new (preferably green and nutritious) leaf. We need to realize that while large amounts of sugar are unhealthy, we can simply learn to moderate our intake. We need to take the time to read the nutritional information on packaging and decide for ourselves which products are healthy. We need to eschew pills in favor of better eating habits and the gym. In short, we need to stop idly watching the obesity rates climb and realize that just as each of us is contributing to the unflattering statistics, each of us can do something to stop them from getting worse. Only if we each take responsibility – and take action – can we make “America’s obesity epidemic” forever fall from the vernacular.

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