Our current strategy to cure the obesity epidemic focuses on individual weight loss when instead we need to transform the American lifestyle as a whole. As a capitalistic society, we embrace any innovation that promotes convenience and efficiency. Naturally, fast food, movies in the mail, online shopping and TV dinners have become mainstays of the American lifestyle – not to mention beach-ball bodies. The percentage of Americans ages 20 to 74 with body mass indexes (BMI) higher than 25, which is classified as “overweight,” has risen from 45 percent in 1961 to 66 percent in 2008, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
American-born, African, Hispanic and Asians between the ages of 12 and 15 are more than twice as likely to be obese than their peers who were born in their own countries, according to a University of North Carolina study. From fast food restaurants to movies in the mailbox, the way we live fuels America’s escalating obesity rates. Far too often, weight-loss experts blame our genes for this dismal statistic. In the book, “Rethinking Thin,” New York Times science writer Gina Kolata argues that most people who are overweight struggle to slim down their entire lives, but remain stuck “within a relatively narrow weight range set by their genes.” Although it is true that our genes are working against us – human evolution has favored genes that conserve energy, and therefore store fat, for survival in times of scarcity – the facts remain. First of all, we cannot change our genes. Secondly, in the early 1960s, the majority of Americans were at a healthy weight. The human genome has not changed in a span of less than 50 years. And genes can’t explain why there’s a higher adolescent obesity rates in American-born minorities than in immigrant adolescents. In both cases, the groups with the higher incidence of overweight subjects have one thing in common – the modern American lifestyle. Although we can’t modify our “weight genes,” we can change the culture that allows them to express their predisposition to store fat.
We are making progress in our quest to change the shape of the average American, but it might be in the wrong direction. From government Web sites like mypyramid.gov to America’s $40 billion weight-loss industry, slim-down resources now appear everywhere. Even some advertisements for diet pills are telling us the right way to lose weight. According to a nanoSLIM ad issue of Abs Magazine, regular exercise and proper nutrition are essential for achieving your weight-loss goals. It’s great that we are trying to turn things around, but it’s obviously not helping that much. Only 5 percent of attempts to lose weight and keep it off end in success, according to the FDA.
The problem is that we aren’t looking at the big picture – the big picture being the American way of life. Our current strategy to cure the obesity epidemic focuses on individual weight-loss when instead we need to transform the American lifestyle as a whole. We need to start centering social events around “active fun” like long walks or dancing instead of oversized, fried meals and alcohol. We need to make nourishment – not gluttony – a priority of eating once again. A sedentary workday should be punctuated with exercise breaks instead of latte breaks.
Every American, heavy or fit, needs to make an effort to change our culture. Thousands of overweight people die each year from complications associated with Type II diabetes, coronary heart disease cancer. Even worse is the humiliation, discrimination and emotional damage that being fat in America brings. But if compassion isn’t your thing, taking personal responsibility to change the American culture could save you a lot of money in taxes. Staggering obesity rates account for $117 billion in U.S. health care annually, according to the FDA.
So get moving. Ask a friend to take a neighborhood stroll with you rather than catching up over chips and queso. Plan a camping trip or a sand volleyball game rather than organizing a keg party. Contact your favorite campus restaurant and suggest that they add some healthy choices to the menu. During your lunch breaks, get a few of your colleagues to walk with you to a healthy restaurant instead of driving to the nearest fast food restaurant. Although one person can’t change the entire American way of life, such individual efforts constitute crucial baby steps towards a collective initiative. If everyone starts spreading these healthy habits within their circle of friends, family members and co-workers, the ripple effect will create a groundswell of attitude and behavior change that will revolutionize the American way of life.
Soon, inexpensive fast-food joints will be forced to swim with the current, adding even more light, nutritious meal options than they already offer. Overpriced health-food restaurants such as Whole Foods will have to lower their prices to remain competitive. A healthy lifestyle will become more affordable all around, providing even the lower socioeconomic classes – the segment of society with the highest obesity rates – with the resources necessary to slim down. But all this begins with individual efforts to positively change our lives and the lives of the people closest to us. If we make sure that an unhealthy lifestyle is no longer the norm, a BMI over 25 won’t be either.