Health on the Edge: Our Nation's Biggest Health Crisis
Dr. Ludwig, an obesity expert at Children’s Hospital Boston and associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, recently made headlines by suggesting that some parents should lose custody of their obese children in an editorial he co-wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Ludwig’s suggestion was quickly attacked by parents and health professionals alike; and rightly so, in my opinion, since state intervention is unlikely to solve the problem of childhood obesity and is unconstitutional, to boot. Still, while Ludwig’s proposed remedy can be dismissed, the problem he is calling attention to cannot.
Approximately 17 percent of all children (12.5 million) between the ages of 2 and 19 are currently obese, according to the latest statistics supplied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—triple the rate of childhood obesity in 1980. And in adults the problem is even worse. According to the CDC 33.8 percent of all men and women in the US are obese.
Two decades ago, not a single state in the nation had an obesity rate higher than 15 percent. Today, every state does, with 12 states having obesity rates of 30 percent or more. All told, Americans are overweight by a collective 4.5 billion pounds. And this trend shows no sign of reversing itself. Especially when considering that the segment of people in the US who are unhealthily overweight—but not yet obese—is approaching 30 percent of the population. (Obesity equates to a body mass index reading of 30 or higher, while being unhealthily overweight equates to a BMI of between 25 and 29.9.)
The obesity epidemic our nation faces is not only tragic, it has the potential to bankrupt the United States’ health-care system. The direct link between obesity and the leading causes of death in the US—heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and various types of cancer—is well known. The risk for all of these conditions rises significantly due to obesity. In fact, researchers at Oxford University in England recently discovered that obesity poses a much higher risk for breast cancer than either alcohol or heavy smoking because of the way obesity negatively influences levels of hormones that can trigger breast cancer.
Obesity is also a major cause of sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, depression, kidney problems, and various common gastrointestinal and respiratory conditions. In men, it often causes erectile dysfunction. Obesity has now surpassed smoking to become our nation’s number one cause of preventable deaths.
Given the numerous health risks posed by obesity, it’s no wonder that obesity accounts for nearly $150 billion in medical costs in the United States each year. Even more alarm- ing, by 2018 obesity related medical costs are projected to rise to $344 billion, accounting for 21 percent of our nation’s total annual health expenditures. By the same year, the obesity in the US is projected to rise to 43 percent of the adult population, and people who are obese will pay an average of $2,460 more in medical bills each year compared to adults who are not overweight.
The toll posed by our nation’s rising obesity rates—both in terms of health and economics—is one we can no longer afford. But in order to successfully reverse this trend, we as a people must accept a harsh truth: With rare exceptions, obesity is primarily the consequence of people’s lifestyle choices and eating habits.
True, there are many external factors that also play a role in rising obesity rates, including the way that manufacturers of high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar, and low-nutrient foods and beverages incessantly target children and adolescents through the media; the proliferation of fast-food restaurants and inexpensive and unhealthy meals; the widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup; etc. But the bottom line still comes down to individual choice. No one is forcing us to eat badly or to continue our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. To continue to do so is simply inexcusable. Especially in light of all of the research proving that obesity is both preventable and reversible through healthy choices we can all make on our own, namely eating more wisely and exercising more.
The question facing us as a nation is: Do we have the willpower to do what we know is not only good for us but also vitally necessary? If we don’t, no amount of medicine, whether conventional or alternative, will be able to stave off the mounting health-care crisis looming ahead of us. Nor will any type of insurance, whether supplied by private insurers or the government, be able to continue paying for the healthcare costs associated with obesity. Without a healthy dose of self-discipline at the dinner table, within a few short years, suggestions like Dr. Ludwig’s may no longer seem so radical. In fact, they may be mandated. As with most other health-related issues, the choice is ours.
Larry Trivieri Jr. is a leading lay expert in the fields of alternative and integrative medicine and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about health, as well as the editor of Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide.