Obesity Epidemic

small logo

There is an epidemic of obesity in the more affluent parts of the world today. Medically speaking, hamburger and other junk food chains have contributed a lot to this malady, where they exist. McDonald's fries, for instance, grew from 200 calories in 1960 to 610 calories the past couple of decades or so. Hamburger portions in the various fast food stores, like Burger King, Wendy's, etc., with all the cholesterol in them, have likewise grown in size and calories the past decades into "super-size value meals." And the eating frenzy, more like grazing really, has invaded the home too, where people eat almost 'round the clock, while watching the television, lounging on the couch, puffing away, and neglecting to exercise. The new gastronomic, sedentary and smoking culture many of us parents have unwittingly introduced our children to has converted the younger generation into junk food and cigarette addicts who despise exercise, living a most unhealthy lifestyle.

Statistics from around the globe show a rapid increase in the prevalence of obesity the past 10 to 15 years. Worldwide, there are 1.7 billion people who are severely overweight or obese. Obesity is more common in Germany compared to the United States. The prevalence of obesity in the United States is 24% of men and 27% of women. In the United Kingdom, about 14.5% are obese, and in France only 7% of people are obese. In general, the males are more likely to be overweight than the females, but women comprise the majority of the obese and severely obese. Compared to other countries, Italy has the greatest number of obese and severely obese, followed by Germany. The Netherlands and Australia have the least obese and severely obese people (about 20%) but this is still significant. Sixty percent of Australians over the age of 25 is overweight.

Unfortunately, with the western influence on our lifestyle and behavior, there seems to be a trend among Asians towards these same statistics. About 21% (a little more than one in five) of Filipino adults are obese. Twenty-two percent of them are in Cebu, Bacolod and Iloilo, and 19% of them are in Manila.

Obesity is present if there is excess body fat, when one weighs 20% heavier than his/her ideal weight. But the more accurate formula is the measurement of BMI (Body Mass Index): Weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters (Kg/m2). This is independent of sex or age. Example: If a person weighs 60 Kg and the height is 2 meters, divide 60 by the square of 2 (same as multiplying 2 by itself) which is 4. So, 60 divided by 4 equals 15. The BMI of this person is 15. The accepted international BMI cut-off points are as follows: Underweight (under 20); Normal weight (20-24.9); Overweight (25-229.9); Obese (30-39.9); and, Severely obese (40 and over).

Among the diseases associated with being overweight are diabetes mellitus, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, to mention some. One does not have to be severely obese to suffer the adverse effects of excess body weight. And there is no longer any doubt that persons who are overweight are generally more prone to develop illnesses, suffer more and recover slower when sick, and are higher surgical risks, compared to those individuals with normal weight. As a result, health and hospitalization insurance premiums, and/or individual family medical expenses, will keep on escalating.

Obviously acknowledging that their hamburgers and fries are full of cholesterol and not the healthiest foods, the hamburger chains soon introduced fish and chicken sandwiches and other chicken recipes on their menu. In the last decade or so, they have incorporated a salad bar, with low-cholesterol dressings, diet drinks, and other diet foods. This is an obvious admission, even on the part of these purveyors of super-high cholesterol foods, that fish and vegetables are the healthier food items. These healthier and wiser alternatives are now evident in almost all fast-food stores and in regular restaurants around the world. As a matter of fact, most classy restaurants today even have a section on low-calorie diet, or healthier-choice food items, on their menu. Dieting and exercising are now a fad, especially in the United States.

Why are we so concerned about cholesterol? Is it really that bad for our health? Yes, it is. We have enough scientific evidence today that cholesterol is a major culprit in the development of hypertension, heart attack and stroke, among others. One person dies every minute in the United States from heart attack. From the time you started reading this article, two to three Americans have succumbed to heart attack. Cholesterol is that deadly.

Of course, there are other factors in the equation, smoking, like excess body fat, high blood pressure, diabetes (which are all related to obesity), lack of exercise, being a male, genetic, to list the more "popular" causes of the Number One killer of man today. These etiologic factors are divided into those within our control and those beyond our control.

Among the non-modifiable ones are (1) Being born a male (which predisposes one to a higher risk of having heart attack compared to females) and (2) Genetic make-up. The modifiable ones include (1) excess body weight, (2) smoking, (3) sedentary life, and (4)hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol blood level) from unhealthy diet.

Familial hypercholesterolemia (a transmitted genetic defect) is found only in one out of 500 people, so only one out of 500 of us has the excuse to have high cholesterol level in our blood. The 499 of us are simply abusing ourselves to death, literally committing slow suicide, if you will. With the obvious help from the junk food chains.

Since early cholesterol plaque formation (hardening of the arteries) are seen in children as young as 5 and 6 years old, and since many of them are overweight, it does not take one to be a rocket scientist to postulate that we must be doing something wrong in feeding and rearing our youngsters starting from infancy. This is one area our Pediatricians, physiologists, nutritionists, and even the government and its health agencies, should focus on and investigate.

Starting about a decade or so ago, people in the United States, Europe and Asia have been more conscious about lifestyle changes in the pursuit of health and longevity. The trend is prudent and inspiring, led by the more educated segment of the world community. More and more people are eating low-cholesterol diet (consisting of fish, vegetables, fruits and other hi-fiber nutrients), abstaining from red meat and eggs, quitting cigarettes, doing daily exercises, listening to their body more seriously, managing their stress more effectively and taking more rest and relaxation breaks. To the medical community's amazement and delight, current statistics reveal more people have stayed away from the fast-food restaurants, and eating healthier. Many have opted to be vegetarians.

It is possible that we are finally seeing the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel? The past couple of years have witnessed a massive decline in the stock market value of the world's biggest fast-food giants and the folding of hundreds of fast-food restaurants due to sliding sales. McDonald plunged by 69%, losing 74 billion US dollars. Last year, it announced it was closing 630 restaurants in 10 countries. Burger King, the second biggest chain, had to be salvaged by its British parent company, Diageo, which sold for one billion US dollars less than expected. The third largest chain, Wendy's, has suffered a billion dollar loss (30%) in 2002 and Jack in the Box lost 51% of its value.

Does this mean we are all getting wiser and opting for the healthier lifestyle? Hopefully so, but let us not hold our breath, because these fast-food chains might still come-up with more "brilliant" marketing ideas to drum up business from us, the gullible and all-too-willing consumers of cholesterol. In the final analysis, of course, the choice is ours, entirely ours. They can tempt us all they want, but with self-discipline and resolve, we can survive this epidemic with a healthier lifestyle for ourselves and for our children.

©2003Raoul R. Diez, M.A.O.D.