The significant increase in the average life expectancy during the 20th century was seen as one of the greatest achievements of modern society -- but now, the global obesity epidemic has placed that achievement in jeopardy.
Those born in the early 20th century could look forward to an lifespan of approximately 50 years. Though now, the world leader, Japan, boasts an average expectancy of 83 years. This change has been brought about by many factors, including advances in medicine and technology, better living standards, more nutritious diets, and pure drinking water, which significantly reduced infection and death rates among children.
Unfortunately, one epidemic could seriously reverse the advances made: that of obesity. In the U.S., nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children are affected by this problem.
According to researcher Dr. David S. Ludwig, who specializes in obesity prevention at Harvard Medical School and the Boston Children’s Hospital, in the first nine months of 2015, more Americans of all ages died because of obesity-related issues, than in 2014. Deaths caused by heart disease and diabetes rose by one per cent, liver disease deaths by three per cent and stroke deaths by four per cent. Deaths related to Alzheimer’s disease, meanwhile, rose by an alarming 19 per cent in the same time period. Not many people are aware of the fact that Alzheimer’s is linked to midlife obesity.
Dr. Ludwig notes that no technological advances or medications are capable of reversing the trend caused by obesity. In an article entitled Lifespan Weighted Down by Diet, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, he states that while between 1961 and 1983, life expectancy increased consistently throughout the globe, it decreased between 1983 and 1999. This downward trend is bound to continue, he warned, given the fact that children today have higher body weights than ever before, and often enter into adulthood with an obesity problem.
The problem is not only health-related; economic costs related to obesity are also high, with direct medical costs estimated to have reached $190 billion per year (this figure does not even take into account the costs of lost productivity). These expenses and the lost tax from lower productivity, warns Dr. Ludwig, are bound to increase the national deficit and take up a significant percentage of the already drained coffers of Medicaid, Medicare, as well as private insurers.
The problem seems to have an easy enough solution: consume less calories and get more exercise. However, it is easier said than done; the body’s regulation of the food we consume is a highly complex process and recent studies have shown that obese people have a lower ability to resist food cues. Moreover, when we eat less, we magnify the body’s appetite regulating signals and as we lose weight, our appetite actually starts to increase!
Dr. Ludwig notes that for too long, the responsibility for obesity has been placed on the individual, yet the food industry is to blame to a great extent. Individuals are encouraged to reduce their intake of calories, yet food manufacturers are free to continue making and marketing low quality products. Very few people can actually keep their caloric intake to a minimum over a sustained period of time, because the metabolic rate slows down and hunger levels rise. He says, “recent research has shown that food affects hunger, hormones, and even genetic expression in ways that cannot be explained by consideration of caloric balance alone.”
In other words, what you eat matters at least as much as how much you eat. Thus, products which are refined and high in sugar, are linked to weight gain, while many foods which are high in calories and fat (such as nuts, dark chocolate and olive oil) are not linked to weight gain or Type II diabetes.
A new national strategy is required which places due importance on public health, if the obesity epidemic is to be put to an end. The public should be encouraged to consume high quality proteins, seasonal produce, legumes, whole foods and nuts, and to avoid processed foods which are high in sugar, especially all products containing high fructose corn syrup. Children at school should be educated on food nutrition and should be fed nutritious meals; they should also be offered a wealth of opportunities for sport and other physical activity. Greater pressure needs to be placed on companies that aggressively market unhealthy food products. Finally, parents need to work hard to ensure that their children have access to an array of healthy, delicious foods at home. When it comes to voting, we should support politicians who place food health high on their political agendas.