Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Have American Waistlines Stopped Growing?

Pam Belluck of the New York Times reported today that obesity rates have been seen to stabilize (for some groups like blacks and whites, but not Mexican-Americans) over the past 5 years. I've heard this data in several classes, and it does appear to be true. But this shouldn't be taken to mean that obesity rates are declining -- they certainly are not.

What puzzles me and other obesity researchers is: Why?

Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at Harvard School of Public Health and Director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston is quoted in the New York Times as saying that
"we [may have] reached the biological limit...[and] it could be that most of the people who are genetically susceptible, or susceptible for psychological or behavioral reasons, have already become obese."
We're not likely to know why this is happening for some time. And it begs the question of whether our metrics just aren't good enough any more. For example, maybe those who are obese today are still heavier than those obese five years ago. In other words, is overweight the "new normal"? For the sake of the health of future generations, I sure hope not! 

Nonetheless, these findings should not detract from the serious and urgency of addressing obesity in our communities.

Obesity is still extremely high -- nearly half of African American women are obese (not just overweight, but obese) and nearly 43 of Hispanic women are obese. And its not just adults. Nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese.

As we were solemnly reminded in class one day, no society has successfully reversed weight trends (i.e. gone from being drastically over weight to normal weight). We certainly are not at that point right now. Only with evidence-based programs in schools and communities, public policies unhindered by politics, and fundamental changes to our food and transportation landscape will we see obesity in this country decline and return to a point of "normal."

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