Obesity has been on the rise in the United States (and in many other countries) over the past few decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 34 percent of all adults in the U.S. are overweight, and another 34 percent is obese. Particularly alarming is the prevalence of obesity in children. Although childhood obesity seems to have plateaued between 1999 and 2006, almost one-third of all children in the U.S. are overweight and 17% are obese. In the past forty years, the sharpest increase in the number of overweight and obese children has been observed in boys, children with Hispanic or African-American descent, and those living in the southern states.
Obesity is a risk factor for illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, osteoarthritis, and even some cancers. Since children who are obese usually become obese adults, they are also more likely to eventually suffer from obesity-related illnesses. More immediate health risks for both children and adults who are obese include higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The good news is that overweight or obese adults and children can help decrease their risk of developing immediate and degenerative obesity-related conditions by losing weight. Most often, weight loss can be achieved through lifestyle modification.
Am I, or Is My Child, Overweight or Obese? Calculating Body Mass Index (BMI)
A person is considered obese if his or her body mass index, or BMI, is 30 or above. BMI is a measurement of the relationship between weight and height, and signifies whether a person falls into a weight category associated with compromised health. BMI provides a reasonable indication, rather than an actual assessment, of body fat. It is possible for a person with significant muscle weight, like an athlete or body-builder, to have a BMI of 30 or above, even if he or she is not actually obese. These people are usually the exceptions, not the norms, though; most people with a BMI above 30 generally have increased levels of body fat. To conclusively determine whether excess body fat is a health issue, it may be necessary to conduct further screening (e.g. physical measuring of skinfold thickness or waist circumference), and looking at whether other risk factors for obesity, such as family history, diet and exercise patterns, are present.
BMI determinations differ for adults (20+ years old) and children (ages 2 to 19). BMI for adults is based solely on height and weight, and doesn’t account for differences in age and gender, even though, on average, women tend to have more body fat than men and older people tend to have more body fat than younger people. BMI for children and adolescents, on the other hand, takes into account sex and gender, in addition to height and weight. Under the BMI system, a child is considered to be of a healthy weight when he or she falls within the 5th and 85th percentile of all children, overweight if between the 85th to 95th percentile, and obese if at or above the 95th percentile is considered obese.
Click here for a BMI Calculator for children and teens (ages 2 to 19).
Click here for a BMI Calculator for adults (ages 20 and above).
Causes of Obesity: Nature or Nurture?
It’s easy to conclude that obesity is, simply, caused by excessive energy (caloric) intake coupled with inadequate physical activity. The development of obesity, however, is complex and chronic, with behavioral, psychological, social, cultural, metabolic, and genetic factors. It differs from person to person depending on how one’s genotype (genetic code passed from one generation to another) interacts with environment.
We now understand that “obesity genes” and variations of them exist in the human genome, or genetic blueprint. Inheritance of an “obesity gene” is not necessarily a sentence to obesity, though, unless the gene is expressed that way. Whether, how and when particular genes are expressed is determined by the epigenome. Currently a hot research topic in science and medicine, epigenetics explains how identical twins can be born with the exact same DNA and not develop identical health conditions, such as cancer or obesity, later in life.
The epigenome essentially serves as the nexus between nature and nurture; it translates environmental stimuli (including nutrition, exposure to toxins, and maybe even our thoughts and feelings) into proteins that modulate or alter our gene expression. What this means is that our genes do not determine our destinies, rather they indicate a predisposition to manifest in a certain way in response to various environmental and emotional stimuli; a myriad of lifestyle factors plays a significant role in whether genes are turned on or off, and thus how physicality manifests.
The lifestyle choices we make directly impact our abilities to transcend genetic predisposition toward any particular condition. For example, if obesity runs in the family, a person may have to work much harder than someone without the gene to keep weight off through a preventative lifestyle. Sticking to a non-inflammatory diet, and exercising moderately and regularly will help prevent the manifestation of overweight and obesity. Detoxifying regularly, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough sleep will also help. Engaging in mind/body activities to practice better psycho-emotional stress management can give us a leg up against the tendency toward emotional or unconscious eating, as can cultivating awareness of cultural and familial patterns revolving around food.
Knowing and believing that we can beat the genetic odds through lifestyle habits we can control is part of the battle, while committing to an anti-obesity lifestyle is the other. The longer we commit, the easier it gets, and if we fall off the health wagon for a moment, we can always get back on it without stressing out about our perceived failures and giving up.
Weight Loss / Management
Losing weight can immediately reduce our immediate risk of health issues like hypertension and unhealthy lipid levels, as well as longer-term risk of health complications like heart disease, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers. Usually, weight loss may be achieved through adopting healthier lifestyle habits. Consulting a certified nutritionist or naturopath for one-on-one guidance about such lifestyle planning may also be useful. In cases of extreme obesity, or where other health conditions have manifested, pharmaceutical and surgical interventions may also be appropriate.
Tips for losing, or maintaining a healthy, weight:
- Stick to a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats on hand. Avoid refined sugar as much as possible! Don’t live on processed foods from a fast food restaurant, vending machine, or box. Drink plenty of purified water. Tip for kids: give them string cheese sticks and fruit for snacks rather than cookies and soda.
- Be physically active. Whenever possible, choose to walk instead of drive, or take the stairs rather than the elevator. Turn on the radio and dance while at home, and find a friend to walk or bike with before or after work. Round up some people online and start a kickball league. Participate in physical activities you enjoy the most, as you are more likely to continue them over time. Get your kids to turn off the TV and video games, and play in the backyard, or on the local soccer or baseball field.
- Learn to better manage stress. Keep a journal. Regularly participate in mind/body activities like yoga and meditation, and learn to breathe deeply. Develop a social support network. Play with a pet. Get a massage or manicure. Go for a walk. Start a creative project, etc.
- Detoxify the body. Quit smoking. If you’re worried about gaining weight, be extra careful about sticking to a non-inflammatory (low-sugar) diet and getting enough exercise. Mind/body work is particularly helpful when learning to quit.
- Nurture (not nature) yourself! Don’t accept that you are destined to be overweight or obese because it runs in your family. Even if you have to work twice as hard as someone without a family history of obesity, losing, or maintaining a healthy, weight is within your power through lifestyle choices you make every day.
- Believe in yourself and your capabilities, no matter how much weight you have to lose! Every minute, hour, day is an opportunity to make good choices when it comes to food, even if you slip up here and there.
- Don’t deprive yourself of foods you truly enjoy. Have a taste of unhealthy, gotta-have ‘em edibles on occasion; treat them as if they are condiments, rather than main dishes and compensate for lack of volume by eating more fruits, veggies, or nuts (nuts are “fattening” in that they contain a lot of fat, but they can give you a feeling of satiety while not resulting in an insulin spike). Everything in moderation.
Overweight or Obesity as a Social Norm
Although “obesity genes” may place us at a physical disadvantage when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, overcoming obesity is not impossible. Doing so involves continually making lifestyle choices that support weight loss, despite what “Nature” blessed us with. Nature and nurture do not have to go hand in hand. Taking an objective look at eating patterns we learned as a part of our family or social culture – the “nurture” – can help us recognize how we may have learned to eat unhealthy foods, or eat in an unhealthy manner or for reasons other than actual hunger. When sad, for example, were we given a bowls of ice cream to cheer up? Was it a family tradition to Mangia! Mangia! despite all body signals of fullness? Was cleaning the plate more important than paying attention to the body’s needs?
Making healthier lifestyle changes may be easier said than done, however, especially when people who are around us all the time continue to practice eating habits that support obesity. They may not want to hear about the need to make changes, regardless of how much we care about their health. We may feel the need to defend our new lifestyle if pressured to make others happy by continually eating everything they provide. The challenge of personally making healthier food choices without offending friends or family members, then, may require delicacy, in addition to resolve.
Sometimes obesity is the end result of emotional eating that has stemmed from sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse. If this is the case, it’s advisable to see a therapist or other professional who is trained to help the abuse victim process and cope with such trauma.
The Increasing Risk of Obesity in Children
The alarming increase in childhood obesity suggests that today’s children are (1) not consuming the right amounts of healthy food and/or not getting enough exercise; and are (2) possibly predisposed to obesity due to changes in their genetic code. While the first factor is within the direct and indirect control of adults and institutions responsible for child welfare (e.g. parents, nannies/babysitters, schools, doctors and hospitals), the second indicates that the “obesity-gene” is on the rise.
Whether it is “nature or nurture,” it seems today’s children face greater challenges in maintaining healthy weights. In light of this, we need to do all we can to give them a fighting chance against debilitating, obesity-related illnesses. Educating adults about how to avoid overweight and obesity in children they care for is, thus, one step in the right direction toward helping prevent childhood overweight and obesity.
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
Jamie Oliver, best known for his cooking show, “the Naked Chef,” has taken prevention of childhood obesity to another level. Since 2004, Oliver has been working to improve the way British and American children eat through his Ministry of Food and School Dinners campaigns. In 2009 he started a Food Revolution TV show series in which he worked with school lunch ladies and local families in West Virginia to help get people all across America to eat healthier, made-from-scratch meals, as opposed to processed foods.
Oliver’s Food Revolution currently involves gathering “signatures” through an online petition to provide better food to kids in American public schools. Oliver plans to present the petition to the President of the United States and the First Lady to demonstrate community interest and ask for support in changing the way American children eat.
Michelle Obama’s White House Garden
President, Barak Obama, and First Lady, Michelle Obama, might actually help bring Oliver’s vision to light. A few months after settling in to the White House, Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the South Lawn as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity. To promote healthy eating and physical activity, she gardens with elementary school students in Washington, DC and nearby Virginia. The garden, now 1,500 square feet, boasts over 54 varieties of fruits and vegetables and yielded approximately 1,000 lbs of food which gets donated to local homeless shelters and food pantries, if the White House does not use it.
Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign involves empowering parents and caregivers to give quality prenatal and child care and make healthy food choices for children, as well as developing school and community programs to help increasing children’s physical activity levels. Other program initiatives include the provision of healthier food in schools, and making healthy food more affordable and accessible, generally. Many of the recommendations are intended to be implemented through federal agency action.
Obesity is NOT our Destiny
It is through widespread awareness and commitment to healthy living that we will change obesity trends in America, and possibly worldwide. Change will require an understanding of why and how 68% of adults and about 33% children in America are overweight or obese, as well as what we need to do, individually and collectively, to reduce these numbers.
Obesity prevention is within everyone’s reach. Cultivating awareness of the need for, and knowledge of how to implement, change is just as possible as developing the means to live a healthy lifestyle through individual and collective efforts. Part of the solution necessitates learning how to make the best food choices each day as well as being able to physically and/or financially access such choices. Throw some commitment and patience in the mix, and we’re on our way to overcoming obesity.
References and Resources:
- CDC Web Site:
- The Glycemic IndexWeb Site.
- “Epigenetics .” PBS Nova Science Now Web Site.
- Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles (Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books, 2007).
- “Michelle Obama Launches White House Garden’s Second Year.” Politics Daily. Pub. April 10, 2010.
- Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign
- The NIH National Heart, Lungs and Blood Institute Web Site. “Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults.”
- Ogden C, Carroll M, et al. Prevalence of High Body Mass Index in U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2007-2008. JAMA. 2010;303(3):242-249. Published online January 13, 2010 (doi:10.1001/jama.2009.2012). See abstract.
- Strauss R, Pollak H. Epidemic Increase of Childhood Overweight, 1986-1998. JAMA. 2001;286:2845-2848.
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