No one wants to dump cold water on so many well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym or cut out the midnight snacks, but in case you missed the news in the New England Journal of Medicine last month, despite all efforts to the contrary, our collective weight problem is getting worse. And, it turns out, the dangers of carrying around extra pounds are deepening.
America is the land of the fat and free, and our physical condition is not improving. By the end of this decade half the adult population in the U.S. is expected to be obese, which is to say those of us so afflicted will have a body mass index of 30 or higher. (Anything above 24 in the ratio of weight to height is considered overweight.) One in four adults is expected to be severely obese, which is a body mass index of 35 or greater, according to the study. The projections draw upon an analysis of data involving more than 6.2 million people.
Kidding aside, the worry is not just about physical appearance or self image, though those concerns are real. Obesity is directly related to an assortment of other health problems from high blood pressure to high cholesterol to Type 2 diabetes. It’s also related to more than a dozen types of cancer, including those affecting the liver, pancreas and kidneys.
Obesity trends in U.S. were the dark linings to an otherwise positive update this week from the American Cancer Society. The celebrated report showed the death rate due to cancer declined more than 2% from 2016 to 2017 — the largest drop on record. Over a 25-year period, the decline in cancer deaths is nearly 30%.
Those numbers are a reflection of medical technology and our improved ability to find and treat cancer, particularly the lung, colorectal, breast and prostate kinds, according to the society. Deaths due to skin cancer, for example, have steeply declined with the increased use of immunotherapy drugs. That’s not to mention the positive effects of aggressive public health campaigns to dissuade people from using tobacco.
Still, the rates of certain kinds of cancer -- such as colon and rectal cancer -- remain outliers. They're growing in certain categories. “What we’re seeing with obesity is really sort of parallel to what we saw with cigarette smoking,” Timothy Rebbeck, an epidemiology researcher at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, told the New York Times.
The solution to this problem isn't so straightforward as a collective resolution to swear off carbs and sweets or to take regular, brisk walks. Many factors affect one’s weight, from how much you make to where in the country you live. Some health researchers believe that obesity rates may be higher in minority communities in part because companies that make less healthy, processed foods pour money into advertising that appeals to those consumers.
Economics are another factor. In its reporting on obesity trends, CNN noted the cost of fast-food meals -- high in calories, low in nutrition in many cases -- has actually fallen relative to inflation, which generally makes those foods more convenient for people living on low incomes or who are working multiple jobs.
"Low food prices are certainly part of it," Aviva Must, chair of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, told the news outlet. "Also limited options for physical activity. And there's a lot being written about the stress of structural racism and how that influences people's behavioral patterns. So it's very complicated."
There may be no simple, single solution to sloughing off the pounds, individually or collectively. But it’s pretty clear that all of us need to do a better job of maintaining a healthy diet, lifestyle and waistline — and supporting programs that help others do the same — lest we face painful, costly consequences down the road.