Obesity is a very serious medical condition, no longer viewed as strictly an issue of cosmetics. It’s a contributing factor in the death and disability of too many of our neighbors, friends and family members, and its societal costs are astronomical. Although overall obesity prevalence rates appear to be leveling off, there are still far too many Americans who are overweight or obese - approximately one-third of adults are obese and another third are overweight.
Besides facing an increased risk of premature death, people who are obese are at greater risk of serious medical conditions that can make them very sick, potentially subjecting them to constant pain and suffering and diminished quality of life. Obesity not only drives up health care costs for patients and families, it costs businesses - and the country - tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity and higher employee health costs.
While obesity is often viewed as an issue of personal responsibility, overeating is as much about biology as it is about psychology. There is much we still don’t know about the causes of obesity. Biological research has found that behaviors that are laid down early in life contribute to obesity. Environmental factors, such as access to safe parks and affordable healthy foods, also play a role.
Human beings today live in a biological time warp of sorts: there is a mismatch, or disconnect, between the way our bodies adapted to deal with food scarcity through tens of thousands of years of evolutionary biology, and our modern world of inactivity and abundance - of cheap, inexpensive, calorie-dense, sugar-laden and fatty foods. The world has changed, but our biology has not.
When it comes to obesity and its related diseases, our zip codes may matter more than our genetic codes. The rates of overweight and obesity are higher in lower-income neighborhoods and some ethnic communities. Being poor is about more than not having money - it also means limited access to affordable healthy foods and safe places where children and adults can play, run, walk, and bicycle.
One of the main reasons Americans eat as poorly as we do may be the ubiquity of low-priced, unhealthy foods and their promotion - not only everywhere, but at all times of day. From the processed food sold in grocery stores to the prepared food sold in fast food restaurants, we are surrounded with tempting options that aren’t good for us.
Another major reason Americans eat as poorly as we do may be related to the current effects of government policies dating back decades. The abundance of relatively inexpensive food that Americans enjoy is not an accident of history. Government policies that have subsidized and promoted the production of commodity crops, as well as scientific, technological and market changes, have helped shape the economics of the modern food industry.
The relatively inexpensive food that most Americans consume every day may seem like a good deal, but in fact is a very expensive proposition. Unaccounted for in the price are, among other things, the future health care costs associated with heart disease, diabetes, and other obesity-related diseases. This examines a long-term strategy for trying to improve the American diet.
Despite the enormous challenges involved in fighting obesity, communities like Nashville, TN, are doing something about it - and succeeding. Recognizing that combating obesity is not just an issue of personal responsibility, Nashville is taking serious steps, in partnership with the federal government, to help its citizens be more active and live healthier lives.
The battle against obesity will eventually be won - not by a “silver bullet” government program, pill or fad diet - but by the combined and diverse efforts of individuals, organizations, businesses and governments. We must attack the problem from all directions and with all the tools at our disposal, from building new parks to operating healthy food trucks, opening new grocery stores and other healthy food outlets to planting community gardens and everything in between.