Why U.S.'s Big Fat Problem Is Your Problem, Too

We're heard it before. America is fat! And getting fatter!

So why should you care? According to a new report, the obesity problem is everyone's problem.  After all, almost two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese.

And according to a new study out Monday, the number of overweight people in the U.S. will grow to almost 42 percent of the country by 2030, and cost a whopping $550 billion in obesity-related health care costs per year.

Obesity costs additional billions due to a loss of productivity, and U.S. military leaders have reported being overweight or obese as the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service.

The report out today, "Accelerat­ing Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation," by the Institute of Medicine - a non-partisan group of thought-leaders - offers recommendations to help solve a real and growing problem.

According to the 478-page report the only way to fight the epidemic is to dramatically overhaul society. That includes action by community members, schools, the food industry, marketers, and the government.

The IOM panel members examined more than 800 previously existing studies and recommendations before issuing their report. Within each "goal" or "category" are strategies to help reduce the epidemic in 10 years.

Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, an IOM committee member and professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said that what this report does is "qualitatively different."

"It's not a laundry list. It's a specific kind of road map and recipe for change," she said. "We packaged those 'ingredients' so we can counter a recipe for what, specifically we should do, where should we put our energy, which things will work together."

The five basic categories:

  1. Make physical activity an integral and routine part of life.
  2. Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine, easy choice.
  3. Transform messages about physical activity and nutrition.
  4. Expand the roles of health care providers, insurers, and employers.
  5. Make schools a national focal point.

In addition, the report adds five "critical environments" they say are in need of urgent reform: physical activity, food and bever­age, message, health care and work, and school.

The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) quickly issued a rebuttal of the IOM report, saying it calls for Americans to "actively reduce the number of choices Americans have when they sit down to eat."  The CCF, a non-profit group funded by restaurants and food industries, said the epidemic can be blamed on a "lack of personal responsibility."

But Kumanyika said that although there is an element of personal responsibility, it cannot be the sole source of blame.

"If so much of population has become overweight it can't mean there has been a massive individual failure all of a sudden, over the past 20 years," she said. "You have to say to yourself, 'Why now? What has caused this?'"

She added that what the report is trying to do, if implemented in its entirety, is support the "personal responsibility" belief by providing people with choices that are "conducive to maintaining their weight."

Kumanyika added that people have things "stacked against" them when it comes to weight maintenance, including static working environments, food options and availability, and seductive marketing that makes it cheaper and easier to eat poorly.

"If the environment has become so much more challenging then maybe people, in order to exercise personal responsibility, need more support (and) need different choices," she said.

The IOM is part of the National Academies and offers advice to the government, and others, on health issues. The report was released at the Weight of the Nation conference, a three-day meeting hosted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cable channel HBO will air a four-part, two day documentary of the same name next week. HBO also offers tips on its website for implementing these changes in your community.

Reuters contributed to this report