Wellness Report on Obesity

Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD

It’s no secret that, as a nation, we’re getting fatter – recent statistics reveal that there are twice as many obese Americans today than there were just thirty years ago. And, along with extra pounds comes an increased risk for chronic diseases – like diabetes and high blood pressure – so the spiraling epidemic is bound to put further pressure on our health care system.

Obesity isn’t too picky when it comes to victims – regardless of age, gender or race, millions of people are affected. But a recently published report* from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicated that certain population groups are more affected than others.

Data gathered from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, known as NHANES, points to these disparities – obesity affects 45% of blacks and nearly 37% of Hispanics, compared with a lower prevalence rate of about 31% among whites. Not surprisingly, geographic differences were reported, too. Greater obesity rates were seen in the South and Midwest regions of the nation compared with the Northeast and the West.

The report cited three key factors that might account for the differences among populations - exercise habits, dietary patterns and attitudes regarding body weight. Compared to whites, for instance, blacks and Hispanics are less likely to take part in regular recreational activity – partly because those in minority and low-income communities may have fewer locations where they can safely engage in exercise.

It’s also been documented that in neighborhoods with large minority populations there are fewer chain supermarkets, produce stores or farmer’s markets and more fast-food restaurants – which means that fewer healthier choices are available. And, even when they are accessible, healthier foods are relatively more expensive than fat and sugar-laden fast foods.

Attitudes regarding body size also play a role in explaining differences in obesity rates - in many cultures, being overweight is not considered a negative trait. Black and Hispanic women, for example, report greater satisfaction with their body size than white women – which means they are less likely to try to lose weight. So, while white females may have more problems with poor body image and chronic dieting, minority women may be encouraging the acceptance of an unhealthy body weight and the health problems associated with it.

Finding effective strategies for combating this epidemic is critical. The CDC funds programs in 25 states to address obesity, particularly in minority populations. But the target behaviors in these programs – increased fruit and vegetable intake and more physical activity – are key strategies for everyone who struggles with excess weight.

Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.

*Centers for Disease Control. Differences in Prevalence of Obesity Among Black, White, and Hispanic Adults --- United States, 2006—2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 17, 2009 / 58(27);740-744

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