We have all heard it: America is obese. We are an obese nation; this notion can be attributed to Surgeon General David Satcher. Satcher identified the problem of America having the largest international body mass index (BMI) in 2001. Many medical professionals believe that a person’s obesity can be calculated through their BMI, a system that calculates the ratio of a person’s height and weight (Surgeon General). But, this system’s imperfections are showing now more than ever. Its minor flaws: the system is gender and age specific in children under 15 and then uses the same criteria across the board for all men and women are appearing as not so minor. While these flaws were accepted for over a decade, current medical professionals are asserting that the ratio should not be used when evaluating a person’s obesity. The system does not accurately reflect how obese a person is. So, medical scientists are striving to find a better, alternative method to the BMI ratio. Since the BMI system is clearly not effective, many people are beginning to wonder whether or not Americans are in fact as overweight as the BMI system said they were in 2001.
The Surgeon General and his team defined America’s obesity by the BMI system which measures the amount of fat, the flabby tissue that gives a person their out of shape appearance, a person has in comparison to their height and weight; “BMI is calculated as weight in pounds divided by the square of the height in inches, multiplied by 703. Alternatively, BMI can be calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of the hight in meters (The Lancet).” Although the system is faulty in some areas, medical professionals deem it an accurate method of measurement primarily based upon the fact that there is no other system of obesity measurement that has been universally accepted. A BMI over 25 is considered to be overweight, signaling that a person has more fat than he or she is supposed to have. When the Surgeon General made his announcement in 2001, Americans were considered to be overweight with a cumulative BMI of approximately 41.5.
But, the BMI system has various limitations that were not taken into account during the Surgeon General’s announcement. These limitations prevent doctors from accurately providing an exact obesity rating. In adolescents, obesity is defined as age and gender specific or, as anyone ranking above the 95th percentile range in the CDC BMI-for-age-growth charts. These charts easily identifies a child’s BMI by comparing their height and weight growth yearly. A child’s percentile ranking is relative to the ranking of other growing adolescents in the same age and gender grouping. These charts not only help assess growing children who are overweight, but also underweight. Each child is measured with these charts by their doctors during their yearly physical.
Research has proven that although the BMI measurements claim to measure body fat, it does not do so as directly as people think. For example, the system can overestimate the amount of fat in a person(s) who is muscular and underestimate the amount of a person(s) who have lost muscle mass, such as the elderly. It does not make any difference to the BMI system whether you are a 21 year-old olympic athlete or a 75 year-old, immobile man (BMI Not Accurate). Prime examples of the BMI system mistakenly classifying people are basketball star Kobe Bryant and actor Brad Pitt, none of whom appear to be overweight. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a body builder, was categorized into the highest level of obesity due to the amount of muscle mass he retains (Devlin). With clearly faulty classifications such as these, how can we trust the system?
The blatantly defective evidence that disproves the BMI system leads to the question of whether or not America really was the most obese nation in 2001 as previously stated by the Surgeon General and if it is still on the track towards chronic obesity. According to a 2004 study conducted by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, calculating a persons’ waist circumference (WC) as opposed to their BMI is a better predictor of obesity risk and illnesses that come with being overweight than the BMI system. LiveStrong.com article Alternatives to BMI confirms this theory by stating that measuring the natural waist can give an almost accurate indication of the amount of abdominal fat a person contains. Women with WC of 35 inches or more and men with a WC of 40 inches or more are considered to be risk factors (Holley, Casey). People who are in the “risky range” are more likely to develop side effects of obesity such as diabetes and heart failure. The WC is as simple as measuring a person’s belt size; to make it more accurate, doctors factor in other elements of a patient’s medical history. This enables them to find out what diseases each individual person is capable of developing. WC is more effective than the BMI because it calculates a person on an individual scale, not the wide ranged scale that is used for the BMI. Although these studies are not yet widely approved by national medical professionals, they are quickly on their way to being approved and providing a better method of calculating how obese a person is.
Regardless of the actuality of the Surgeon General’s announcement in 2001, Americans have begun to work towards becoming less obese. Government programs have tried to make sure the US does not remain the world’s fattest nation. The government has involved itself by helping maintain and lower obesity levels in Americans. There has been an increase in the amount of private intervention being put out by privately owned companies and non-profit organizations. This is commonly known as government intervention, or actions taken by the government in order to affect the decisions made by individuals on either economic or social matters.
However, due to the fact that people highly value their privacy and ability to make their own decisions, government intervention into the personal lives of the public is constantly being questioned. Many people do not like government officials telling them what is good for them, how to enforce good eating habits to their children, and even telling school systems what can or cannot be served for lunch. The government has already involved itself into the lives of Americans; they have done this so much and so well that people hardly notice it anymore. For example the federal government constantly intervenes in the lives of Americans by installing traffic lights, setting curfew laws, and creating school curriculums. But, when the Surgeon General made his announcement about obesity, many people rejected early attempts of regulating the nations obesity levels. Weight, is a personal issue and for a while, a great deal of people felt that it was too personal for government intervention they do not want to be told that they are too fat by someone who is not a doctor. However, over time, people have become more aware and accustomed to the obesity epidemic, primarily to both government and private intervention.
One major issue with the government trying to reduce and maintain the current levels of obesity in America is the fact that their intervention would have to surpass the economic states of some areas of the countries. People residing in low-income areas tend to maintain higher obesity levels due to the simple fact that eating healthy is expensive. In most low-income places, a 12 pack of Cosmic Brownies is equivalent to the price of about two packages of grapes. So, naturally, to save money, people tend to eat more fattening foods. In places such as this, there is also less money being given to school districts where there are less healthy alternatives for students to eat during lunch and snack time. The government, along with many private companies and non-profit organizations have been pushing for more natural grown foods in schools, such as fruits and vegetables, and healthier options to be provided for students, pretzels as opposed to cookies. Many companies have been donating money to get healthier options for students to eat and providing money for these options to become more accessible and affordable. Leading Medical Journal, The Lancet, states the government should be responsible for making healthy foods cheaper and affordable stating that they should be easily accessible at both private and public schools along with public universities. So, a possibility to increase health the over all health in the general public would be to produce cheaper produce and for the government to fund more home-grown produce, such as establishing new farms and giving money to already existing ones. If fresh produce is more affordable, there is a possibility that they will become more desirable and regularly consumed. An issue with this would be that this idea would be opposing foreign trade and would be slightly more costly.
One of the toughest forms of intervention is trying to influence the private sphere of people. The private sphere is a space known only to the person who possesses it; it contains their thoughts, desires and knowledge. Republicans feel that there should be little to no government involvement into this realm while Democrats feel that there should be a great deal of intervention. But with an issue such as obesity, something needs to be done. Bureaucrats cannot sit down with every family during every meal to make sure good eating habits are being enforced and proper exercise routines are being followed. One possible way of doing this, according Kersh and Monroe, is to create an even stronger sense of social disapproval. The idea is to alter the current social atmosphere and have fast food chains, and other fattening foods, be thought of as highly unacceptable and even detrimental to the overall health of a person. Supersize Me, a documentary study about McDonald’s and other fast corporations, has already given out a simple form of social disapproval: fast food makes you fat. Since the documentary was released, there has been a dramatic chance in the way the fast food industry was run.
Almost immediately after the documentary was released, it became a common belief that eating at restaurants such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell were one of the key factors that played a role in American obesity. Contrary to this popular and often substantive belief, not all fast food restaurants are as detrimental to a person’s weight as previously believed. McDonald’s is a prime example of this. Ever since the movie Super Size Me was released in 2004, exposing the dangers of a “super sized (Super Size Me),” or extra-large, meal, McDonald’s has moved away from its long, publicly given title of the most unhealthy fast food establishment. While the movie helped change a great deal about McDonald’s and numerous other fast food establishments, they did not do all the work that has ranked McDonald’s 8th out of the top ten healthiest fast food establishments, according to a consensus produced by Health Magazine (Health Mag.). Other fast food chains such as Wendy’s or Taco Bell do not even make the cut. The magazine sent out a team of researchers to survey 100 fast food places, and scored them on factors such as the use of healthy fats and sodium counts, the availability of nutritional facts (which was previously hard to find in fast food chains), and the use of organic and natural produce. The article states that the once thought of as unhealthy restaurant is paving the way for other fast food industries in the currently “heart- and waist-friendly (Health Mag.)” society. One of the establishment’s most popular new techniques that has been incorporated into other establishments is the option to have a side of fruit with every happy meal instead of french fries. And, if you must have the fries, their french fries are baked in CDA approved heart-healthy canola oil. Also, the chain offers low-calorie options such as snack wraps which consist of a mere 260 calories (Health Mag.).
So, they suggest that another positive form of influence to public behavior can be achieved through medical-science which means allowing people to know facts about being overweight and what it means to be physically fit. According to the two, the facts do not have to be entirely accurate; the idea is to convey the true message that being overweight is not good and will soon be socially unacceptable. Also, people should be able to get help outside of the gym, according to the authors, who want there to be group meetings similar to meetings set up for drug addicts. The demon user/ industry effect is to influence Americans to feel like people who eat poorly and industries that promote poor health habits are “demons,” or inherently bad. Surprisingly, it is easier than it seems to put a demonic spin on negative foods. In 2009, leading expert in childhood obesity Robert Lusting’s lecture, “Sugar: the Bitter Truth,” got over 800 thousand views on YouTube with a viewer growth rate of approximately 50 thousand views a month. The hour and a half long speech persuasively lists sugar as a toxin and a poison and often refers to it as evil. Toxic sugar is not only the common white household substance, scientifically known as sucrose, but also high-fructose corn syrup, which Lusting calls the “most demonizing addictive known to man (Taubes, Gary).” Not only does sugar provide consumers with empty calories, calories that provide no nutritional value, but can cause numerous health issues such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes. However, this is not to say that people should not be eating positive sugars: the sugars that come from fruits, vegetables and whole grains that provide antioxidants, energy and often enzymes that encourage a natural boost in metabolism, leading to weight loss. Foods that contain toxic sugars, such as anything processed, from a fast food restaurant, and many desserts should be avoided. Since Americans have acknowledged their growing obesity problem, there has been a rapid increase in the over all health of the American Public and a decline in the nations average BMI.
However, most of the sugars that were attacked by Lusting in his lecture are incorporated into fast foods and other processed goods. Yet, it is not useful to place all the blame of weight gain onto one food. While Lusting suggests and enforces the idea of cutting out sugar entirely, the Dietitians Association of Australia does not recommend this at all. In their medical journal entry Sugar: not so toxic, they state that when it comes to sugar, men and women should try to eat it in moderation and limit their intake of foods high in added sugar and low in nutritional value such as soda and candy (DAA). If you have not seen the commercials proclaiming the goodness of high fructose corn syrup, then you should. Aside from their comical attributes, they are not wrong. What was conventionally known to be bad for your body, and toxic, according to Lusting, is far from it. Promoted by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the attempts to get high fructose corn syrup out of the toxic range are surprisingly being supported by the American Medical Association which recently announced that corn syrup does not contribute to obesity (McLaughlin, Lisa).
According to a study conducted by one of the top medical journals, The Lancet, as a follow-up to the study produced by the Surgeon General in 2001, when modern international BMIs are compared, America is not even in the top 10 fattest nations. America has lost its perviously held number one spot to the small nation of Nauru. Over the last decade or so, the push for government intervention and personal motivation to get fit, and healthy has paid off. While American men are rated 10th on the international BMI scale, American women are ranked 36th with a BMI of 28.7. This is proof that, obesity can be sustained and maintained at its current levels and even prevented for the future. The truth is, it is very hard to influence the public and personal sphere of America. But, if it is reached, it is possible that obesity can be maintained at its current levels and even possibly decreased and one day stopped.
Although many aspects of American society are getting healthier: McDonald’s has become a considerably healthy establishment, the last fifteen years or so has seen a spike in the organic and natural foods industry and, in part due to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “get fit” programs, it has become increasingly more important for Americans to exercise and consume healthier foods and yet, in 2011, obesity rates increased in 16 states and the rates did not decline in any state (F as in Fat). According to F as in Fat: How obesity threatens America’s future 2011, a report from Trusts for Americans Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), 12 states now have obesity rates above 30 percent; merely four years ago, only one state had a percent ranking that high. Shocked by these statistics the report examined exactly how obesity has grown over the past two decades (F as in Fat). Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rating of above 15 percent. This year, in contrast, 38 out of the 50 US states produced obesity ratings of over 25 percent. For the 7th year in a row, Mississippi has maintained its leading spot as the number one state with the highest level of adult obesity (F as in Fat). The report noted that the fastest growing obesity levels reside in the south: Alabama and Tennessee have experienced intensified rates; this year, the slowest growing levels occurred in Washington DC, Colorado and Connecticut. The highest obesity rates remain in racial and ethnic minority adults, along with low-income families (F as in Fat).
While it might seem like Americans are becoming more obese, many public health experts disagree. Since the Surgeon General’s first analysis of American obesity, not enough time has passed to correctly analyze recent data (Rochman). Although obesity rates are not declining, these numbers have nothing to do with the efforts made to prevent future obesity. This does not mean that an individual’s personal goals and efforts to obtain their dream weight are not working. Dr. William Dietz, director of the division of nutrition for the CDC, claims that efforts to ward off obesity are in fact working fine. Comparing the anti obesity efforts to the 1950 anti-smoking efforts when medical professionals released the conclusive evidence about the link between smoking and cancer, the doctor asserts that for approximately 15 years, smoking rates remained at a plateau and even increased for sometime (Rochman). It is the same concept with tackling the issue of obesity in America: it needs time and further developed tactics to achieve reduced levels. Ironically, these medical professionals are basing their evidence off of a faulty scale for evaluating a person’s body fat percentage.
If the BMI system is clearly flawed and there are other better and more efficient methods of measuring the percentage of a person’s body fat, why are doctors still using it? If a person cannot accurately measure their actual fat percentage, how can we assume that America was at one time the world’s fattest nation? While it is clear that alternative methods to the BMI system are not yet medically accepted, it is also clear that to keep using the BMI system would not be beneficial towards the medical community in any means. The only absolute proof that has come from the realization that the BMI system is heavily flawed is the notion that America may in fact not be as obese as though of by the world’s populations. It is important that medical professionals continue to test alternative theories so that the public can be provided with a more reliable method of calculating a person’s body fat percentage. Based on the fact that the nation’s current obesity levels were raked based on a system that is not accurate, it is impossible to accurately identify whether or not Americans are actually getting fatter or fitter.