Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obesity in America

Why the bulge?
Obesity is a complex problem, and scientists don't fully understand the many genetic, biological, and behavioral factors involved. But it's obvious that human genetics and biochemistry take generations to change, while the rate of obesity is skyrocketing, having increased more than 5% since 2000 alone. That magnitude of change can only depend on human behavior — or, in this case, misbehavior.

Diet and exercise are the only behavioral factors that regulate body fat. Both are problems in America. But although fewer than a quarter of us get the exercise we need, we are not any more sedentary than our parents. The culprit, then, must be diet.

The supersizing of America
A 2004 study proved the proposition: Americans are eating more. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluated the caloric consumption of average Americans between 1971 and 2000. For men, the average daily consumption increased from 2,450 to 2,618 calories. That's a jump of 168 calories a day. It may not seem like much, but over the course of a year it will add 17 pounds — and the news is even worse for women, who added 335 calories a day over the 30-year span.

Americans are eating more both at home and away. Portion size and calories consumed increased in all food categories. The greatest increase was in soft drinks, salty snacks, hamburgers, French fries, and Mexican food. From this list, you'll surely predict another important finding: The greatest increase in portions and calories occurred at fast-food establishments.

In 2001, Americans spent more than $110 billion on fast food. The appeal is obvious in today's busy world. But the feeding frenzy does not depend on convenience alone. Advertising feeds the nation's appetite for fast food, with children a major target. It's no surprise that one survey found that 96% of American schoolchildren recognized Ronald McDonald, placing him just behind Santa Claus among fictional icons.

Bargain-priced jumbo servings add to the problem. A typical serving of McDonald's fries contains three times more calories today than when the franchise began. A "regular" soda at Burger King contained 12 ounces in 1954, but a "small" cup contained 16 ounces and a "medium" portion 21 ounces in 2002. And the emphasis on large, relatively inexpensive portions has spilled over to many foods, from cookies to popcorn and sandwiches to steaks.

In one year, an American adult consumes 40 pounds of white bread, 41 pounds of potatoes, 30 pounds of cheese, and 77 pounds of added fats (butter, lard, and cooking oil) — to say nothing of 52 gallons of soda. In all, the Department of Agriculture reports that food consumption rose by 8%, or about 140 pounds per person per year, during the 1990s. Our nation produces about 3,900 calories a day for every man, woman, and child. That's perhaps 50% more food than we need, and the food industry spends $30 billion a year on advertising to be sure it does not go to waste but to waist.

What to do?
Despite all the weight loss books, programs, and potions that lighten America's wallet by $33 billion a year, there is only one way to lose weight and keep it off. The math is simple but unforgiving: You must burn more calories than you consume. Sustainable weight loss requires a reasonable diet and regular exercise.

Eat less
Human nutrition is complex, but the mandate for weight loss is not: Reduce your caloric consumption. That means reducing your portion size and choosing your foods wisely. Avoid foods that are high in sugar and/or fat. They are calorie-dense, and they slide down all too easily. Instead, favor fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products. They are high in fiber, take longer to eat, and may be more filling. For example, compare a medium-size chocolate chip cookie with a medium size apple. They each have about 100 calories (if they are really medium size!). Now consider eating five cookies or five apples; it's obvious that most people can easily knock off the cookies, but few can finish the apples.

For a weight-loss diet, the only thing that counts is the calories you eat. But it's easier to count calories if you favor fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products instead of fast food, whole-fat dairy products, fatty meats, regular soda, and sugary or fatty desserts and snacks. Even though you'll take in fewer calories, you'll get more healthful nutrients. If you add fish, in fact, you'll have an ideal diet.

Exercise more
It's the other half of the weight-loss equation, and it's just as important — but just as neglected — as caloric restriction. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise nearly every day. Just walking two miles a day will substantially reduce a person's risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, and premature death. It will also burn calories. A 200-pound man will use about 220 calories in 30–40 minutes of brisk walking. In the course of a year, he will take off nearly 30 pounds even without any dietary changes. For faster weight loss, eat less or exercise more.

As far as weight is concerned, exercise has two additional benefits. First, it will keep weight off, accomplishing what all those heavily hyped fad diets fail to achieve. Second, it will take a disproportionately large amount of weight off the abdomen, something abdominal crunches and "spot reducing" schemes never do.

Obesity in America: Large portions, large proportions - AOL Health

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