The Role of FCS in the Obesity Epidemic: Supporting Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Article excerpt

Individuals are bombarded every day with data on obesity and its health consequences, with information on weight loss treatments and their successes and failures, and with tips on how to reduce caloric intake and increase physical activity. Obesity has become a global epidemic, termed globesity (World Health Organization, 2003), and seen by many in the U.S. as a major public health crisis (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2001; Mokdad et al., 1999; Nestle & Jacobson, 2000). By now, the statistics are familiar. Nearly 50 million adults, almost one-third of the adult population, are obese, and 16% of children are overweight. Equally alarming are the rates at which overweight and obesity have increased in recent years, leading to both public and private sector efforts to better understand and address the problem.

To fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem one must understand how weight status is determined. Body Mass Index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height, is used to categorize weight status of adults (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2004a). For adults, a BMI at or above 25 and less than 30 is classified as overweight, and a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese. In 1999-2000, 65% of U.S. adults were classified overweight or obese (National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS], 2004).

Children's weight status is determined using age- and sex-specific BMI percentiles (CDC, 2004a). Children at or above the 95th percentile for age and sex are classified as overweight, whereas children at or above the 85th percentile and less than the 95th percentile are considered at risk of overweight (CDC, 2004a). Using these criteria, 16% of U.S. youth ages 6-19 were overweight in 1999-2002 (NCHS, 2004). Even among preschoolers ages 2-5, 10.4% were overweight in 1999-2000 (Ogden, Flegal, Carroll, & Johnson, 2002).

Identifying obesity in the U.S. as an epidemic stems not only from the high prevalence of overweight and obesity now, but also from the rates at which obesity has increased in recent years. Obesity rates more than doubled in adults between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. Rates of overweight more than doubled in 6-11 year olds and tripled in 12-19 year olds in the past 20 years (NCHS, 2004). No demographic or geographic group has been unaffected by this alarming trend (Mokdad et al., 2003).

Much of the cause for concern over rising obesity rates stems from the relationship between weight status and chronic disease. Compared to those of normal weight, obese adults with a BMI of 40 or higher were seven times more likely to report having diagnosed diabetes, six times more likely to report high blood pressure, and four times more likely to have arthritis (Mokdad et al., 2003). Even individuals who are overweight but not obese have an increased risk for these conditions. Diseases and conditions that were formerly thought of as adult medical problems, such as Type 2 diabetes, are now occurring in children with increasing frequency, linked to the rising rates of childhood overweight (American Diabetes Association, 2000).

Researchers and policymakers are striving to reach a better understanding of the causes of obesity in order to identify effective ways to address this epidemic which currently shows no signs of abating. The condition of obesity "reflect[s] food and lifestyle choices that ultimately result in an energy intake that exceeds expenditure" (Fried & Nestle, 2002). Understanding and addressing the multitude of factors that influence food and lifestyle choices leading to obesity seems critical to reversing weight trends in the U.S.

Environmental factors are likely to be at least partially responsible for the obesity epidemic. The food supply is ample in the U.S., providing an estimated 3,900 calories per person per day in the year 2000-12% higher than in 1985 (Putnam, Allshouse, & Kantor, 2002). Availability of dietary fat in the food supply increased 6% from 1999 to 2000, reaching an all-time high, in spite of the efforts over the last 25 years to promote decreased fat consumption. …