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A study on growing obesity trends allows not just individuals, but communities to take a good, hard look in the mirror.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Countless hearts quickened on news this week that Twinkies are back in the stores. The spongy, cream-filled snack cakes have even been retooled for a longer shelf life, though they are not expected to stay shelved for long. Twinkies will no longer be confined to lunch boxes or the snack aisle. Plans are to display them everywhere, next to candy bars, at sporting events . . . right next to all the other stuff we know we shouldn’t eat but do.
Hitting the gym a little harder or a little longer, though, won’t combat the Twinkie effect on the body. Research released last week by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found we can’t exercise our way to slimmer waists and longer lives. Our diets play a far greater role than we may want to admit, and much of what we choose to eat is influenced by society.
Researchers looked at county-by-county data and documented the prevalence of obese people, the number of people exercising regularly, rates of high blood pressure and longevity, and how that data changed between 2001 and 2009.
Even in localities such as those in the Roanoke and New River valleys where residents began exercising more over that decade, the percentage of people who are obese continued to rise, though perhaps not by as much as the national rate. Not surprisingly, researchers also found that life expectancies in the U.S. increased slowly compared to the nation’s economic peers.
Obesity is the topic of this week’s Point/Counterpoint discussion, prompted by the American Medical Association’s recent decision to consider obesity a disease. Dr. Molly O’Dell, director of the New River Health District, Virginia Department of Health, defends the AMA position. Steve Seibold, an author and mental toughness coach, counters that obesity is basically a personal failing in which an individual lacks the gumption and tenacity to stick with a plan to reach a healthier weight — a position that agrees with some of the posters on our RoundTable blog. Just look at the shape of the people who are stuffing their plates at the buffet lines or their mouths during the last day of the Salem Fair, they say.
But, really, are there better choices at a fair? When odors of funnel cakes, cotton candy and french fries permeate the grounds, it’s harder to score something healthier than it is to win at a game of ring toss.
This is the humongous hidden problem nearly everywhere the public gathers and eats. Smart choices are buried, a reminder of the days when a couple of “nonsmoking” booths were set aside in a restaurant’s dining room. It took decades to ban smoking and only after public pressure incited by mounting evidence that cigarettes harm not just smokers but those forced to inhale their exhaled plumes.
Similar campaigns will be needed to change menus and expectations and to downsize portions and waistlines. While individuals will wage their own personal battles (just as smokers did in quitting), public policies can help encourage public sentiment that will eventually change the marketplace. Already at the national level, schools are required to serve more nutritionous lunches, and National Park Service vendors will need to include more nutritionous fare. The same might be considered by fair organizers.
Locally, expansion of farmers markets, encouraging grocers to move into areas served only by convenience stores and marketing recreation will help. “Understanding local trends in obesity and physical activity in both rural and urban areas will help communities develop successful strategies and learn from one another,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a coauthor of the University of Washington study.
But only if communities are willing to accept the responsibility — and the challenge.
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