Tuesday, March 07, 2006

U.S. failing in fight against obesity

U.S. failing in fight against obesity
By Christine Dell'Amore
Source: UPI

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- The United States government has been gripped by policy paralysis in dealing with the obesity epidemic, which costs the country more than $117 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity.

"The bottom line is we're killing our future generations if we don't systemically address the obesity epidemic," Shelley Hearne, executive director of the nonprofit Trust for America's Health, told UPI. "There's a paralysis in the government and in the public." Hearne spoke before a U.S. House panel discussing the fight against obesity Tuesday.

TFAH released a report in 2005, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America," which concluded both national and state policies lack an aggressive, coordinated approach to obesity, particularly when it comes to children and the potential for schools to combat the problem.

Hearne's recommendations to turn the tide:

--Add programs that bolster preventive care, such as routine obesity screening and obesity-related disease management.

--Place a higher emphasis on nutritional value in public assistance programs. Higher rates of obesity are correlated with subsidy programs.

--Design smarter communities with sidewalks and parks that promote physical activity.

--Improve school nutrition and exercise. Schools should be the "epicenter" of a healthy lifestyle, Hearne said.

In the United States, 119 million people, or 64.5 percent, are overweight or obese -- making Americans heavier than they ever have been before, Hearne said. Since 1980, the rates of obesity have skyrocketed, and by 2008 experts believe 73 percent of adults will have packed on extra pounds. Obesity is linked to 35 chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

A laundry list of lifestyle choices that bring on obesity, from huge portion sizes to vanishing recesses at schools, makes the situation worse. Minorities are at an even higher risk of obesity, often because of a paucity of supermarkets in inner city neighborhoods, meaning that kids don't get the fruits and vegetables they need in their diet. And even if they are available, fruits and vegetables are also more expensive than processed foods.

In addition, Hearne acknowledged, a lack of sufficient research on obesity to date hasn't helped inform useful policies.

But some states are launching innovative programs to fight obesity, said Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association. Obesity was a focal point of the NGA's Winter Meeting in Washington, which was chaired by Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who lost 110 pounds when given a ultimatum by his doctor two years ago.

Huckabee spearheaded the Healthy America initative, a call to action for governors to improve citizens' overall health. He supports modernizing state programs, such as Medicaid and Food Stamps, to promote and reward healthy choices. Huckabee has used his personal story to motivate people to lose weight in Arkansas, the fourth-highest state for obesity.

In addition, 42 states are pursuing legislation to create nutritional guidelines stricter than that of the Food and Drug Administration, and 44 are working to set enforceable guidelines for physical education in schools.

"We're trying to create a national movement. We need a small group of states to lead, and we know from experience that the other states will follow," Scheppach said.

But Hearne warned that these programs are emerging at the same time the government is cutting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grants to states. James Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a group targeting childhood obesity, said the United States only appears to be taking action. He compares the U.S. approach to obesity to the average American's workout: not long, hard or intense enough.

"We don't need a tipping point," Marks said, adding that Americans are already flooded with information on what they need to do. "We need a pivot point, where we can turn around the damage we've been doing."

Hearne told UPI that people are still somewhat resistant to the idea of the government combating obesity, which is partly to blame for their slow response.

"People think there is nothing that they can do, that obesity is inevitable," Hearne said. "This is not rocket science: It's all about how many calories you're putting in yourself, and how many are getting out. We need to go back to the basics."

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E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com
Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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