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America still weighs too much

The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) recently issued their report on the state of obesity in America and there is enough good news in the report to view it as a glass half full.   Unfortunately, the warning signs in the report are so serious that the glass may actually be half-full with a double-thick chocolate shake topped with extra whipped cream and a candy bar on the side.

In a nutshell, we’ve slowed down our weight gain, but we still weigh too much, are getting larger, and remain on a collision course with the health complications that come with obesity.

{mosads}I don’t want to give short shrift, though, to the good news that TFAH and RWJF delivered, because the positive developments seen in recent years are undeniable.  When this report was issue in 2005, all but one state experienced an increase in their obesity rates.  This past year, only six states witnessed an increase.  And rates of childhood obesity, which had been rising significantly, have actually leveled off in recent years.

But the concerns still outweigh – pun intended – the triumphs.  In 2013, more than 20 states had obesity rates exceeding 30 percent – that is three out of every ten adults!  More than six percent of adults nationwide can be classified as severely obese – a total that has quadrupled over the past 30 years.  And if the current pace of societal weight gain continues, by 2030 more than half of the adults will be obese in 39 of the 50 states.

 That’s the scariest news of all.  2030 is not that far into the future and we can already foresee a tsunami of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other obesity-related conditions, overwhelming the capabilities of our healthcare system and pushing healthcare costs higher.

We still have time, though, to prevent this dismal future from materializing.  If we can indeed slow the rate of obesity, as the TFAH-RWJF report tells us is taking place, then we can certainly build upon that progress and start achieving improved population health and wellness.   We see examples everyday of how great strides can be achieved through multi-stakeholder efforts.  Oklahoma City was once regarded as one of the most obese cities in America, but then achieved its goal of losing a collective million pounds and is now cited as one of the fittest municipalities.  Employers, both large and small, are documenting the considerable impact of employee nutrition and fitness programs.

But, public policymakers have to do their share too.  Research has shown conclusively how healthy eating, exercise, and pharmacotherapy programs achieve dramatic success in helping people lose pounds and maintain healthy weight levels.  Yet, Medicare, the nation’s largest healthcare program and the most influential in terms of affecting coverage throughout the health system, does not cover medicine in its Part D drug benefit for obese individuals.  Nor does it give beneficiaries access to most lifestyle programs.   The end result is that millions of Medicare beneficiaries aren’t receiving the help they need to prevent serious chronic illnesses that are consuming an alarming and increasing amount of time and dollars throughout our healthcare system.

These are easy steps to take and won’t, by themselves, address America’s obesity crisis.  But no single action will.  We need a full spectrum of activism in both the public and private sectors in order to accelerate progress toward better health.  This new report demonstrates progress, but it also shows we have a long way to go to declare victory over obesity.

Thorpe, PhD, is chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.


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