America, 100 Percent Fat
Experts predict that nearly 100 percent of the population will be overweight in our lifetime.
One glance around a shopping mall, at a children's playground—or even down at your own belly—and you realize that with each passing year, more and more Americans are dramatically changing shape.
The stats are staggering.
The number of obese adults has doubled in just 20 years, with 67 percent of the adult population overweight or obese, according to recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control.
And things appear to be getting worse. Back in 1995, when researchers started to notice the changing landscape, one doctor sounded an alarm in The Lancet, a British medical journal. After studying the rise in obesity that had occurred over the 30-year period between 1960 and 1991, Dr. John Foreyt at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston predicted that 100 percent of Americans would be overweight by the year 2230.
Upon seeing more recent data, Foreyt bumped up his projection by almost two centuries: “We’re gaining by 1 percentage point every year. Assuming that trend continues, 100 percent of the population will be overweight or obese by 2040.”
A recent report in the journal Epidemiologic Reviews suggests that this estimate is right on track. Researchers studied obesity prevalence rates from 1990 to 2006 and concluded that 75 percent of the population will be overweight, and 41 percent will be obese, by the year 2015— or by the time today’s crop of grade-school age kids get to high school.
The Skinny Aren’t Immune
Of course, the 100-percent-fat stat is just a scientific estimate. It’s based on analyzing past and current statistical trends in the population and assuming that they will continue at the same rate. In reality, not every single person will be fat. There will always be a handful of people that stays lean and fit (running marathons, hanging out at health clubs, shunning fast food).
But while these folks may never become officially overweight, they might still pack on a few extra pounds. It’s difficult for anyone—active or not—to withstand what Kelly Brownell, an obesity researcher and the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. famously called the “toxic environment” that makes it easy to succumb to poor food choices, overeating and increased inactivity.
In fact, a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Obesity looked at nearly 13,000 male and female runners and found that regular runners who were not overweight still got heavier over a 17-year period if the amount of exercise they did remained constant. Only those who increased their exercise intensity gained less or were able to prevent getting fatter during the period.
The Fat Are Getting Fatter
Determining if a person is overweight or obese is usually based on a person’s body mass index, which factors in height with weight. A person with a BMI of 25 or above is considered overweight. Obesity starts at a BMI of 30, but is subdivided into three stages:
- The first level of obesity occurs at BMIs of 30 to 34.9
- The second level of obesity occurs between 35 and 39.9
- The third level, known as morbid or severe obesity, occurs at BMIs of 40 or greater.
Morbid obesity is increasing the fastest. According to a 2003 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, in 1986 about one in 10 people were obese; by 2000, one in five were obese.
But the prevalence of morbid obesity quadrupled. In 1986, one in 200 adults had BMIs of 40 or above, and the numbers had increased to one in 50 by the year 2000. Worse, the numbers of people with a BMI of 50 or greater (Think Johnny Depp’s invalid mother in the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) increased five times, from one in 2000 people to one in 400.
Kids May Suffer
Rather than accommodate the expanding population by making bigger airline seats and more plus-size clothing, experts say it’s time to start downsizing in a big way. “We have to get everyone to understand the seriousness of the situation,” says Dr. John M. Jakicic, director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
There are costs to the country that people don’t think about, adds Yale’s Brownell. And it’s not just rising health care expenses. “The military is having trouble finding physically-fit recruits,” he says. “Plus, you have to believe that a poor diet is affecting school performance and it may be related to the fact that the U.S. gets outperformed by other countries on many academic tests. Productivity in the workplace also suffers.”
And, most worrying, there are the innocent kids whose lives are at stake. Currently one-third of American children are overweight or obese—and because of it, for the first time perhaps ever, the current generation of children is expected to die younger than their parents.
Type II diabetes, traditionally known as a disease that afflicted older overweight and inactive adults, is being seen in children as young as 5. “When these kids with all the associated risk factors of carrying extra fat reach their 30s, they are going to start having heart attacks,” says Foreyt. And fat children who grow up to be obese adults who then get pregnant are likely to pass on health problems, including greater risks for obesity and diabetes, to their children.
A Call to Action
“These stats are a wake-up call because the obese are walking time bombs,” says Foreyt. “But we’re not doomed if, both as individuals and as a nation, we focus on what we each can do to help the state of our health.”
Experts agree that just getting everyone to diet is not the answer. Instead, we need to change what has been called an “obesigenic” environment.
That’s not because diets don’t work—they do while you’re on them. But the odds of every single person having the will power to resist temptation for a lifetime are slim. Staying self-disciplined is twice as difficult when the cultural environment entices people to eat more and move less at every turn. So public health efforts are centering on eliminating, or at least decreasing, the environmental opportunities to get fat.
In addition to implementing community-based activity and nutrition programs, a strong effort is being made to revamp what happens at schools. “It’s interesting that the fatter our children have become, the less physical education we’ve required in curriculums,” points out Jim Johnson, Ph.D., the chair of the exercise and sports studies department at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
But there’s a positive countertrend. More and more school districts are starting to provide healthful food and drink options. This year, the Texas state Senate approved a bill requiring all grade school-age children to get at least 135 minutes of exercise per week. The Rudd Center at Yale is at the forefront of working with companies on solutions to the obesity problems, such creating healthier food products.
“If every person, every business and every organization in a community commits to making and supporting small lifestyle changes, we can make a big impact,” says James Hill, the director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center.
Prevention, Not Treatment
While experts agree that treating obese people and encouraging fat people to lose weight and become more active is important, that alone won’t cure the problem. “For every one person you help, thousands more are becoming overweight,” Brownell says, “so it’s more important to focus on preventing the younger—and future populations—from becoming overweight with public health efforts.”
These initiatives include everything from changing school food and fitness policies to improving urban planning so that more public transportation, bike paths and safer sidewalks and neighborhoods are available.
“National and world governments will become more involved in legislation to change the toxic environment,” says Brownell. Current approaches include regulating junk-food advertising to kids and monitoring and banning unhealthy food manufacturing processes.
Many experts liken the challenge to smoking. “You don’t drive down the prevalence of lung cancer by treating patients, you do so by stopping smoking and preventing people from starting,” says Brownell.
The first anti-smoking efforts began in the 1960s and took 40 years before we saw the benefits of reduced smoking and decreasing lung cancer rates, says Jakicic. “I believe that we need to get much more aggressive to make a significant impact with obesity,” he says. “First, we need to stop the bleeding. If we can encourage healthy eating and physical activity, and if we see at least a plateau in weight gain, we can turn this thing around.”