LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — For Ann Delamater, 57, weight was never an issue. As an adolescent and young adult, she was extremely active, constantly moving and constantly equipped with energy. Because of this, her diet that was high in carbohydrates, refined sugars and almost entirely void of nutritional value.
“I never had moments when I questioned the food choices I was making,” she said, “I ran track and played soccer so I was able to eat whatever I wanted. Throughout at least two decades of my life I did whatever I pleased. The idea of obesity was something that I hadn’t ever given a second thought to.”
A yearly survey done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the past 20 years, obesity rates in the United States has increased quickly and dramatically and is continuing to do so. In 1990, the population for every state in the country had an obesity percentage of less than 15%.
Now, Colorado is the only state in the country to have an obesity population under 20%. On the other end of the spectrum, nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) now have a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%.
According to the CDC, the National Health Interview Survey for 2009 showed that 33% of adults 18 years of age and older engage in no leisure-time physical activity. “I was getting winded after walking up two flights of stairs in my school. I might as well have just had a sign that read, ‘This isn’t normal’ waved in front of my face,” Delamater said.
Like countless other Americans, Delamater’s on-the-go lifestyle settled down when she began working a desk job and adapting to life in the “real world.” Between 2007 and 2009, 12 states reported an increase in physical inactivity. With the cutting down of her activity levels, the nutritionally lacking choices were slowly taking a toll on Delamater. When she reached her 50th birthday, the 5’5 teacher weighed 190 pounds. It was then that she realized her health was potentially in danger.
Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater and is extremely detrimental to one’s health. BMI is an estimate of one’s body fat and acts as a gauge toward concluded a person’s risk for diseases that can occur with more body fat. A normal BMI range should fall somewhere between 18.5 and 24.9. Delamater’s body mass index was 31.6.
“I always felt ‘off’ and for a while I knew that it was because of the amount of weight I had put on. I believe that my pride played a factor in that. No one ever wants to admit that they’ve let themselves become obese,” Delamater said.
Delamater is only one of millions affected by this growing problem that is causing much concern for the well being and future of the United States.
The United States was found to be the country with the highest obesity problem in the world with 30 percent of the population. Mexico was the next highest country on the list but at 24 percent, still six percent lower than American, according to a study done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Katherine Younger, a registered dietician, believes that the problem of obesity in the country is made clear by the statistics and the matter needs to be taken seriously. “I think one of the biggest problems with America’s obesity epidemic is simply that no one understands why it is important to eat healthy,” she said, “They may know what is considered to be ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’ but nothing can be learned if it isn’t put into action.”
In 2007, the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that obesity is associated with over 112,000 excess deaths due to cardiovascular disease. Obesity is also related to over 20 different types of chronic diseases which include coronary heart disease, breathing problems, gall stones, hypertension and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
For Mississippi, the state with the number one highest obesity rate for the fifth year in a row, has been enveloped in a vicious cycle. Due to the difficult expenses and problematic economic struggles, the state also has the highest rate in the country for premature death, according to an extensive report compiled by the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools.
The growing obesity in the country and the declining economy has become parallel with one another. Six of the states with the highest poverty rates are also states with the highest obesity rates. The growing number of people in the population that are unemployed, uninsured and underinsured proves to be an extremely influential factor.
Delamater had struggles with the prices associated with healthy living but was able to cut corners in order to still benefit from it. “Buying in bulk helped out a lot. I would buy fruits in vegetables from a local market so there would always be an alternative for snacks,” she said, “I had to really start getting creative with what I cooked. All the organic foods were just too expensive.”
Between 1985 and 2000, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables rose nearly 40 percent, while the cost of soft drinks, sweets, fats, and oils decreased in the United States. Eating adequate amounts of nutrients and buying “healthy” foods has steadily increased. In an article from the New York Times, Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the center for public health nutrition at the University of Washington, said that because more calorie dense foods are usually cheaper, lower-income households will be more inclined to make these purchases.
“If you have three dollars to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar,’’ said Dr. Drewnowski, “Not only are the empty calories cheaper, but the healthy foods are becoming more and more expensive. Vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods.”
Younger agrees with the pricing problem, “We are eating foods void of these micronutrients but then our bodies will always want to eat more because they are craving those nutrients that they aren’t receiving. Eating a salad over fast food is the ideal but it’s just not that easy for some people.”
The obesity problem is raising concern not just for adults but for children as well, who are being affected on an even greater scale. A report from the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) entitled F as in Fat: How Obesity threatens America’s Future, showed that since 1970, the percentage of obesity among children ages 12-19 has tripled. Americans surveyed for the report stated that they believe childhood obesity to be an issue that needs to be more fervently addressed.
“I’m fortunate my children didn’t go through the same thing that I did,” said Delamater, who has two adult children, “We are a much more health conscious family now and my children are now teaching their children better than I did. It’s a complete 180; the days of boxed macaroni and cheese are long gone.”
The overwhelming numbers have proved to be an incentive to educate the country as a whole about the benefits of positive eating habits and exercise. Collective efforts have been put into effect by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, said the official White House website. In May 2010, President Obama created the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which includes the goal of reducing childhood obesity rates from 17% to five percent by 2030.
Alongside this effort, Michelle Obama established the Let’s Move! Campaign which hopes to combat childhood obesity by empowering parents and caregivers, providing healthy food in schools, improving access to healthy, affordable foods and increasing physical activity.
It appears that Americans are beginning to realize that education is a main component to halting the obesity epidemic, for adults and children alike. Younger, who dispenses nutritional advice on a daily basis, is adamant about effective methods for informing the country.
“I’m a huge believer that education is the path to freedom – it gives people the option of making their own educated decisions. I think our country needs to embark on a huge nutrition education effort,” she said.
Delamater, since her initial decision to regain her health, has lost 65 pounds and has kept the weight off for 5 years now. “My entire lifestyle had to change and I had to really dedicate myself to what I wanted. I think that’s what the rest of the country needs to do,” she said, “It doesn’t matter about how much money you make or who you are, if you want to regain control of your life, that’s the only thing you really need.”