Take Two #64: The American Weighting Game

By Kyra-lin Hom

America is fat. Surveys shows this fact is easy to ignore so I figured blunt is best. Very, very blunt. To be more specific, nearly 70% of the American adult population is overweight. About a third of the adult population is obese. And we've very successfully passed that onto our younger generations too. About one in three children in America are overweight, ushering in a wonderful world of early onset diabetes, asthma, joint problems, just pure laziness and even heart disease. Perfect.

Don't believe me? Statistics aside for the time being, how about a story? When researching sacred mountain sites in China a couple years ago, I noticed that one popular location had a fully functional but abandoned lift system just a few hundred yards from the fancy new one I was boarding. These are the kind of fully enclosed, suspended lifts you can usually take over fairgrounds or view-worthy but not exactly traversable locations. Besides the shiny new paint job, the individual lifts on this new circuit were easily four times the size of the old ones. Apparently, the local government built this new system after an American tourist got stuck inside one of the old lifts. His weight proved too much for the cable and pulley system to handle, and it jammed. The whole circuit had to be stopped for several hours, trapping everyone else inside their lifts high above the ground as well. Talk about embarrassing.

Part of our problem, I've noticed, is that what Americans consider a normal weight has... evolved. When statistics and medical personnel say 'overweight' and 'obese' they aren't always referring to the lift-breaking, walking rotund. Though those are the images the media happily supplies. So what do they mean?

Surveys generally use the Body Mass Index (BMI), which uses your weight and height to calculate how 'appropriately proportioned' you are. (A quick google search can find you a free BMI calculator if you're interested.) It's a quick and dirty way to judge a wide population, but it doesn't differentiate between fat weight and muscle weight. So it's easy for a fit and/or muscle bound individual to read 'fatter' than they are. Keep this in mind as you read on.

BMI normal is the weight corresponding to the lowest death rate for a given gender, age and height. There is nothing aesthetic or cultural about this number. It's all about health. 10% above this is overweight. 20-40% above is mildly obese. 40-100% is moderately obese. The images we're so used to seeing associated with the 'America is overweight' headlines are those morbidly obese individuals unfortunate enough to have been walking by at the wrong time. This category is for individuals 100% or more above the statistically healthiest weight for their demographic.

Only 5% of American adults are morbidly obese. But to reiterate, two-thirds of American adults are at least overweight. Is it possible to be overweight and healthy? That depends on your definition of healthy. On the other hand, just as we've been conditioned to associate only extreme images of obesity with 'overweight,' we've also been conditioned to associate underweight images with 'healthy' – a big problem of mine. Thank you to the media for royally screwing up everyone. (Watching British television is remarkably refreshing in that regard).

Give me twenty minutes (okay, ten with a fast internet connection) and I can find hundreds of articles on what steps Americans and America should take to fight this rising epidemic. Not a one of those is going to do any good if we don't acknowledge the reality of the problem. If we're complacent about our 'comfortable' weight, we're not going to actually do anything about it.

One thing that has proven effective, for example, is regulating school lunches. Those schools that have chosen to control what food options are available have noticed statistically significant weight reductions in their student populations (not to mention better attention spans and a decrease in delinquent behavior). Obviously controlling the availability of unhealthful food works. Despite that, adults don't want it.

Jennifer Agiesta and Lauran Neergaard lay this out in their January 13th Seattle Times article, “Poll: Fight obesity crisis but lay off my junk food.” It seems that while Americans agree that obesity is bad, they don't want the government to actually do anything to make unhealthy food less financially and/or emotionally appealing. Huh. This attitude seems rather ironic to me in light of just how much the government subsidizes the corn industry, which in turn promotes the use of things like high fructose corn syrup in lieu of much healthier options (like beet sugar or plain old cane sugar, seriously).

To a point, I agree. It's quite stupid that the government would even need to consider getting involved in something this personal. But with the current rate of weight increase projecting annual obesity-related health costs of over $300 billion by 2018 (over double 2008's figure of $147 billion), we clearly shouldn't be trusted to make those decisions for ourselves. Especially not with our economy already under the stress that it is.

Eating healthy and exercising just a little bit every day doesn't have to break the bank or bust your schedule. There are an uncountable number of resources online with suggestions for quick, around-the-house workouts and ways to eat healthy on a budget. If you missed it, check out Dr. Mehmet Oz's article “What to Eat Now” in December 2012's Time magazine.

Keep in mind, this isn't about vanity. It's about the health of you and your family. It's about living longer, living fully and even whether or not you'll be able to remember that life when you're 85. Vanity is just the bonus.

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