A Growing Public Health Issue

The following was composed by Arun Subramanian, M.D. ~ Dr. Subramanian is working with the Genesee County Health Department, during the Spring of 2012, to complete his student practicum.   

Poor Diet and Physical Inactivity have been ranked second among the behavioral factors identified as the leading causes of death in the United States. The combination of eating too much and exercising too little causes a very high prevalence of obesity among Americans.  Obesity contributes to several health problems, including heart diseases, diabetes, and most kinds of cancer.  It is not only the extra pounds, but how the weight is distributed that adversely affects health. Extra weight in the hips and buttocks is less harmful to health than extra weight in the midsection.

Americans eat too much proteins and fat and too few fruits and vegetables. This pattern of eating is itself unhealthy even if it did not lead to obesity.  Increase in the consumption of sweetened beverages and decrease in the consumption of milk over the past 25 years, especially among children, have contributed to the obesity epidemic. According to Department of Health’s Obesity Statistics for Genesee County, the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese is 63.5 % and that for children is 15.2 %. These rates are slightly higher compared to the New York State rates, which are 59.3 % and 14.5 %, respectively.  

The health risks caused by overweight and obesity threaten to reverse many of the improvements in public health that were achieved in the 20th century. In fact, a study projected that life expectancy of Americans will decline in the future due to obesity. The authors of the study predict that if current trends continue, the next generation will be the first to die younger and sicker than their parents. They suggest that concerns about bankruptcy of the Social Security system are overblown, because fewer people will be around to collect the checks. However, the costs of treating obesity related diseases will put strain on Medicare.   

Recommendations for a healthy diet call for people to eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low fat milk products. However, people have great difficulty in changing their eating patterns, as seen from large numbers who are trying to lose weight, most of them without success. Exercise helps to protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, in addition to helping to control weight. People who are physically active live longer than those who are inactive. Americans get far too little exercise, a factor that contributes to the high prevalence of obesity.

The prevalence of obesity in children is increasing in the United States. Breastfeeding can help protect children against becoming overweight. Encouraging children to play outside and to walk or bike to school can help increase their physical activity. In school, physical education classes that help children develop skills they can use later in life may encourage them to develop the habit of being physically active. One of the most important obstacles to the development of healthful diet and activity patterns in children is television watching, which not only promotes inactivity but also tempts children with advertisements for non nutritious snacks.   

Public health programs are available to promote healthy eating. These programs create a favourable social environment by conducting media campaigns, encouraging ready availability of nutritious foods, and providing nutritional information so that people will choose their foods wisely. Many people believe that dealing with obesity is a personal responsibility. To some degree they are right, but it is also a community responsibility. When school lunchrooms or office cafeterias do not provide healthy and appealing food choices that is a community problem. So, there is much that we can and should do together.

For More Information call the Genesee County Health Department at 585-344-2580, ext. 5000.