An obesity epidemic is sweeping the United States and is increasing the number of severe conditions like diabetes, stroke and heart disease. Two out of three American adults are currently overweight or obese and the prevalence of obesity has doubled in the last 40 years.
The terms “obese” and “overweight” are generally defined in relation to an individual’s BMI, or body mass index. A BMI of over 25 is considered to be overweight, and a BMI of over 30 is obese. Obesity can lead to many severe or chronic health conditions, including respiratory difficulties, asthma, diabetes and even several forms of cancer.
Changes in societal and behavioral patterns are one factor in the rapid rise of the obesity epidemic in recent decades. Although obesity can be influenced by genetic factors, calorie intake and physical activity play a large role in weight balance as well. Recent modernization, globalization of food markets and the increasing prevalence of fast food chains have given rise to a diet composed of a higher proportion of saturated fats and sugars — which in turn causes buildup of cholesterol and increases risk for heart disease. This shift, combined with the decrease in physical activity caused by automated transport and technological advancements, have further pushed the spread of the epidemic.
For example, according to Harvard University, several studies have indicated that sugary drinks can increase risk of weight gain and obesity. Researchers concluded that for every 12-ounce serving of a sugary beverage, the BMI in children and adolescents increased by 0.08 units. Another study found that adults who regularly drink sugary drinks have a 26% higher risk of developing type II diabetes compared to those who abstained from them. Overall, limiting consumption of highly processed foods and sugared beverages has been shown to prevent weight gain and other associated chronic conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.
Because obesity has become so widespread, many weight-loss products and diet plans have been released to meet consumers’ high demand. For patients struggling with weight loss, the myriad diet options and exercise plans can be disorienting.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Quinlan, an AAFP Commission on Health of the Public and Science member, this is where family physicians come in. They are able to address obesity concerns with their patients and can identify health risks while discussing effective treatment options and helpful resources. Together, the physician and the patient can decide on the best course of action, which can also work to help the patient adopt healthy habits.
The American Academy of Family Physicians urges anyone who believes they may be experiencing obesity symptoms to consult with their doctor in order to receive advice or a diagnosis. Over the last decade, however, the number of patients with a primary care provider has declined by 2%. According to the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM), family physicians can play a large role in ending the childhood obesity epidemic in particular by identifying potential risks in patient lifestyle and offering specific advice and tailored information.
On a larger scale, however, many changes are needed to lower the spread of obesity across the nation, according to the CDC. CDC recommends several methods of intervention in reducing obesity rates. Among those are suggestions to ensure that all health plans cover obesity treatment and management services, making healthy beverages and sides default options at restaurants and expanding employee wellness programs to promote increased physical exercise and a healthy diet. They also recommend that obesity-preventing measures take into account the role that socioeconomic factors can play in increasing obesity levels and address those challenges.
There is hope that these initiatives will be successful — the likelihood of an adult developing obesity decreased between 2.4 and 3.8% in states that executed CDC-funded nutrition programs — which included recommendations to serve healthy foods in government-controlled facilities and increase access to locally grown foods — from 2000 to 2010. Ultimately, Quinlan said he believes that changes incorporated within smaller communities and the nation as a whole can achieve reductions in obesity.