There is a new epidemic in the United States – one that predisposes individuals to depression and a slew of diseases, several deadly. Before World War II, it was hardly an issue but today, it’s one of the nation’s top public health concerns. What is this epidemic? Obesity.

According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, only four states in America boast an obesity rate lower than 20%. That means the people who live in the forty six remaining states are at a serious risk of suffering from the harmful effects of obesity – as anywhere from 20 to 34% of them are severely overweight. This endemic, unique to the 21st century, is most prevalent in Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia. To get a better picture of how grave the problem is, consider that as of 2004, 17.1% of children, ages two to nineteen, were overweight, and 32.2% of adults were obese.

But what is obesity? What are its causes and consequences? And more importantly: what can be done about it?

During the Stone Age, early humans engineered artifacts – typically made of clay – that resembled the figures of obese females, implying that such images were revered. Historians guess that if a woman had more than a few extra pounds on her, she was perceived as fertile and not likely to die during a famine. This positive association with obesity continued into the 1600’s, as big and buxom women were the wealthiest of society. Furthermore, overweight women were deemed sexy and attractive; this is a far cry from what’s portrayed as beautiful in America in the early millennia. From the magazines to the runway, American models have one major thing in common – they are all thin, sometimes dangerously thin.

On the contrary, obesity is made a joke of in film and television and those who suffer from its inevitable physical health problems also suffer from a biting social stigma. According to Hollywood, those who are overweight are dumb, lazy, or wicked. Think about the character of Ursula in the Little Mermaid, actor Chris Farley’s persona in films like Tommy Boy, the representations of intimidating mafia members in films like The Godfather, and the use of a fat character as a punch line in films like The Nutty Professor. These are just a few examples of how obese persons are negatively depicted in the media.

Naturally, one would assume that this change in attitude toward obesity would mean that less people are obese nowadays. But the opposite is true (at least in America). Some modern cultures still value heavy women – in Africa and India for example. However, in the United States, where obesity is frowned upon, it also happens to be the most widespread.

And as a result, the obese are not only at an increased risk of everything from sleep apnea to heart failure to cancer, but also to harboring a poor self-image that often leads to depression.

In order to solve the problem of obesity in America, one must first understand what it is. So what is the definition of obesity? It is not to be confused with overweight. In fact, being slightly overweight can actually increase your life span! In order to determine if you are obese, you must calculate your body mass index, or BMI, which ultimately compares your height and weight. A BMI below 18.5 is not ideal – as it means you are underweight. Having a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is normal and healthy, while a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is overweight. But if your BMI exceeds 30, then you are not just overweight, but obese. (Note that the body mass index for children and teenagers is different.)

Calculating BMI is not always the most accurate way to figure out how much body fat you have, however, as it only estimates your body fat and can’t possibly establish it precisely. For instance, those who exercise frequently may have a lot of muscle and muscle weighs more than fat! Calculating your BMI is a good starting point, but it’s best to consult a physician if you are concerned about whether or not you have a weight problem.

So how does a person become obese? Obviously, when you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight. And the more imbalanced this ratio is, the more likely you are to become underweight or overweight. But this doesn’t quite explain the rising obesity trend that’s been seen in the United Kingdom and especially the United States. Why are people eating too much and exercising too little?

First of all, the developed nations also have a more affluent populous – thus, the citizens of the United Kingdom and the United States can literally afford to eat more and yet are not forced to endure much physical labor. If a big appetite for food is affordable and physical activity seemingly unnecessary, then obesity can really thrive. However, there is a trend that seems to counter this logic as well. The least wealthy in America are also the heaviest. It seems that benefiting from education and wealth actually fosters a more healthy diet of food and exercise. Perhaps this is because fast food, which is convenient and cheap but also innutritious, is especially tempting for those with lower incomes. The poorer in America may also have less time for outdoor leisure activities that burn lots of calories.

Genetics puts some people at a greater risk for obesity. There are even correlations of weight and race. But it is one’s genes combined with his or her environment and behavior that is of the most consequence. Biologists have speculated that humans evolved to store fat efficiently so as to endure famines. However, this special evolutionary development may have backfired on Americans, who now have a food surplus and less need to be physically active, but still have a special ability to store fat.

Whatever the cause, whether it is a self-indulgent TV dinner culture that’s taken grip over the West these past twenty years, maladaptive behavior, or all of the above, obesity has serious health consequences. Mostly, these include high blood pressure and cholesterol levels (which can lead to all sorts of severe complications), osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, and even colon, endometrial, and breast cancer. And that’s not all. There is also a cost to an obese person’s mental wellbeing.

Additionally, it is not just the obese person who suffers – but the nation’s economy. Obesity has taken an undeniable toll on America’s health care system. Whether one’s looking at the numbers of the direct medical expenditures resulting from the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for obesity or if they’re looking at the decreased production that results from a significant obese population, there is a clear price to pay for obesity. At the national level, the total medical costs attributed to health problems relating to overweight and obesity surpassed $78 million from just 1996 to 1998. At the state level, that number was about $75 million from 1998 to 2000.

The United States now appears to be dedicated to combating the problem of obesity. And there is a lot of ground it has to cover – as so many contributing factors lead to the prevalence of overeating in America. From aggressive fast food marketing to an almost overwhelming number of cable channels on television, it is hard to lure Americans off their couches and into their kitchens. The government is working to communicate with the American public about the dangers of obesity, as creating an informed public is the first step to fighting the problem.

Moreover, seeing as how bad habits of eating and exercise begin at an early age, education in the primary and secondary school system is key. As well, it’s vital that the school cafeteria food offered is nutritious. However, once a child is out of the school system and grows up, it is likely he or she will end up with a sedentary desk job. Hence, there is a new movement to encourage employers to alter working environments to be more conducive to physical activity and for there to be more community recreational facilities. Another important step the government must take is to support scientific research focusing on the causes and treatment of obesity.

But above all, there is the issue of individual responsibility. A few, simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference for those with weight problems. By eating out less and working out more, you can lose weight fast. But regular physical activity doesn’t mean that you have to go to the gym every day. Simply engage in rigorous household chores, walk your dog, play ball with your child, or take up gardening; you can greatly increase your exercise with everyday activities that don’t seem like exercise at all.

And remember, it’s not how much you eat that matters – it’s what you eat or how many calories you consume. It’s not unusual for one fast food meal to have over 1,000 calories! Why not make a home-cooked meal that has half the number of calories and is also more nutritious and filling? It may take more time to prepare such a meal, but is the time you save at a fast food restaurant really worth the time you may lose down the road if you continue to live an unhealthy lifestyle?

Obesity is a real problem in America. But it’s also too commonly misunderstood. If people can gain access to educational information and related health services, they may stop gaining that extra weight and live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

60 million Americans are suffering from obesity today and that number is only expected to grow – but it doesn’t have to! The startling increase in obesity has happened in just the last 20 years, which means it probably can decrease in that same period of time as well. People must be properly informed about the causes and consequences of being significantly overweight and the government must continue to take action to prevent and treat obesity.

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