The Year of Obesity

  • America's Waistline
    America's fat crisis has been a long time coming. Diet books have been selling briskly for decades, and Richard Simmons' fitness infomercials from the '80s seem positively retro. Despite a national obsession with losing weight, however, we have continued to put on pounds. Today one-third of Americans are not just overweight but obese. That's why the issue got more attention in 2004 than ever before from health experts, government agencies and the media — including Time and abc News, which jointly sponsored a conference on obesity in May. And it's why I've decided — on my own authority — to declare 2004 the Year of Obesity. Here are the highlights:

    --Americans flocked to see Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's documentary about what happens when you eat nothing but McDonald's food for a month. Now McDonald's is discontinuing its Super Size option.

    --Two dozen states took steps toward phasing out soda and junk food in schools, following 20 other states that already had such bans.

    --Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson used every opportunity to urge Americans to carry a pedometer and take more steps every day.

    --The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) announced in March that poor diet and lack of exercise resulted in 400,000 deaths in 2000 and were about to overtake smoking as the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S. In November the cdc admitted that the real number was probably much lower — but that obesity is still the No. 2 cause of death.

    --After his death in 2003, Dr. Robert Atkins' diet was more popular than ever, as low-carb foods crowded supermarket shelves, much as low-fat foods had a few years earlier. But most experts say it's wrong to focus on one aspect of your food intake: the right fats and the right carbohydrates in the right proportion are part of any sensible diet.

    --The as-yet-unapproved drug Acomplia made headlines as a potential treatment for obesity, smoking and maybe cholesterol and drug addiction as well.

    --The government is rewriting its dietary guidelines — the scientific underpinnings of the food pyramid — to try to get Americans to eat healthier.

    --The World Health Organization put forward a strategy to fight obesity worldwide, proof that the problem is hardly limited to the U.S.

    The list goes on. With a sharper focus on obesity than ever before in our diet-obsessed nation, maybe the tide will start to turn (and indeed preliminary data from 2003 show that the decades-long rise in obesity may have peaked at last). I hope so. Not only would Americans have longer, healthier lives, but I could declare 2005 the Year of Getting Fit.

    America's Most Fattening Burger
    While McDonald's is pushing its salad menu, rival Hardee's is unabashedly touting its new Monster Thickburger — two hockey pucks of beef, each one-third of a pound, and three slices of cheese plus bacon and mayo on a (buttered!) roll. That's 1,420 calories in one shot, about half of the recommended total daily calorie count for an adult male. And that's without the fries and soda.

    Now Less Junky!
    Kids' cereals are frequently touted as part of a good breakfast. Unfortunately, aside from any added vitamins, they tend to be the part with the least nutritional value. That may change now that General Mills has switched from highly processed white flour to whole-grain flours in the manufacture of all 29 of its cereal brands, including such kid favorites as Lucky Charms and Trix (Cheerios, Wheaties and Total were already whole grain).

    General Mills' move could strike a blow against childhood obesity, since refined grains are essentially empty carbohydrates and contribute to weight gain, diabetes and other ills. Also, whole grains are much richer than processed grains in dietary fiber — which makes whole grains more filling and may help protect against some cancers. But kids' cereals are still packed with sugar, so there's plenty of room for improvement.

    Move Here, Fill Out
    Moving to the U.S. is even worse for your waistline than we feared, according to a study of more than 32,000 people published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The obesity rate for immigrants who had been living less than a year in the U.S. averages about 8% and rises only slowly for the first 10 years. But then the number starts shooting up, and after living the American way for at least 15 years, the prevalence of obesity in the foreign born jumps to 19%, or virtually the same as people born here.