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Obesity: It's Not Just for Mid-Life Anymore

  • Paige Bierma, M.A.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

No matter what time you set on your alarm clock, you keep pounding the snooze button until 8:30 every morning. Barreling out of bed in a panic, you hit the shower, race out the door, and clock into work just 10 minutes late with a coffee and giant muffin in hand.

You work through lunch while chowing down a burger and fries that you barely notice, but by 3 p.m. you're crashing, so you're off to the vending machine for an infusion of chocolate, vowing to hit the gym after work and buy salad fixings on the way home. But by the time you finally finish work and head out to the car it's late and you're tired, and . . . well, you know the rest.

If this sounds familiar you're not alone: This pattern of eating is typical for scores of college students and young professionals, who are experiencing unprecedented levels of obesity and diabetes -- ailments previously associated with older adults.

It turns out that in the gluttonous '90s, the group with the most dramatic gains around the middle wasn't middle-aged. College-educated 18- to 29-year-olds, usually presumed to be both the most active and image-conscious age group, had the highest increase in obesity of any group.

By 2008, one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 30 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 39 were obese. If you count those who are overweight or obese, it jumps to 68 percent. (Overweight is defined as a body mass index of 25 to 29.9; obesity is marked by a BMI of 30 or more. BMI is basically a number based on your weight and height.)

Why are well-educated 20-somethings packing on the pounds? Fast food and desk jobs, experts say, are the primary culprits.

"We suspect that the majority of these folks are sitting in front of a computer most of the day, eating fast food, and not getting much leisure activity because they work long days," says David Ramsey, a nutrition and health official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Quite simply, many people in this generation are consuming significantly more calories than they're burning.

In fact, Americans need to exercise at least an hour a day to stay healthy, according to guidelines issued by the national Institute of Medicine. Members of a 21-person panel that issued the guidelines said they were concerned about the jump in obesity rates over the last few decades. Adults and children should spend at least an hour a day doing moderately intense activities, such as walking, swimming, or bicycling, they said. The CDC recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week, but also notes that more vigorous activity more often will reap greater health benefits.

Professional Sitters

Computers brought a welcome reduction in the mind-numbing tasks we used to perform manually, but you might say technology is now numbing our backsides instead. Before the Internet revolution, for example, we might have traveled across town for a business meeting; now we sit in on a video conference call instead. Before the advent of email, we might have trotted upstairs to go over a draft presentation with a coworker; now we just zap her a copy electronically. The average worker at the turn of the 20th century put in about three hours of strenuous labor per day. One hundred years later, that number is down to just five minutes.

And while it may seem that the 20-somethings are the ones crowding the gym and bike paths, it turns out that nearly one-third of them aren't exercising at all. According to one government study, 29.6 percent of 18- to 24-year olds surveyed in 2003 were inactive.

Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson may have put it best when he said American society had mistakenly "made fitness a fad rather than a way of life."

Let's face it: Most college-educated Americans in their 20s know that they should be physically active and eat healthy foods, but many seem to find the task too overwhelming. All the emphasis our society places on perfect bodies and dieting, experts say, may be intimidating people out of taking smaller steps toward good health -- like taking a half-hour walk each day.

"I know what foods I should and shouldn't eat," says Melissa Hennings, a tech worker in San Francisco. "But often, it's a matter of not having much time, and the convenience of eating out rather than making dinner at home. It can also be an issue of not really knowing how to cook."

When she was living in the Midwest in her early 20s, Hennings regularly dined on burgers, fries, pizza and Chinese food. "If I hadn't had an active job at the time -- waiting tables -- I could have easily gotten huge," she admits.

The Food Factor

Across the board, frequent dining out is one of the leading contributors to extra pounds. Restaurant food, whether it's from McDonald's or Maxim's, is significantly higher in fat and calories than typical meals prepared at home.

Every year, Americans spend more of their food dollars on meals consumed away from home, reaching almost 42 percent in 2007. And in general, Americans today are taking in 530 more calories daily than they were 35 years ago, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture. That's the equivalent of one quarter pound hamburger with cheese, and while that may not sound like much, it's enough to pack on an extra 50 pounds in one year.

The good news is that this equation is reversible with a few minor changes. Cutting back by just 250 calories a day can make a big difference in the long run. That's equal to a can of soda and less than one small bag of potato chips. Add in some daily exercise and you're on your way to being fitter and healthier. Doctors and nutritionists recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise daily such as brisk walking, but if you can't fit that in, even 10-minute spurts are beneficial. Small changes, such as parking your car a bit farther away from work or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can add up to better health.

In addition to increased soft drink consumption, the "supersize revolution" of the 1990s -- during which everything from french fries to frozen dinners swelled to gargantuan sizes -- has no doubt taken a toll on 20-somethings' waistlines. In fact, the foods that are selling best these days also happen to be about the worst for us.

It probably comes as no surprise that "empty calorie" foods are also the most aggressively advertised. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, companies spent $765 million advertising candy and gum, $728 million on beer, and $549 million on carbonated soft drinks annually. Only $105 million is spent annually promoting fruits and vegetables. The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a study of children's exposure to food and beverage advertising on television in 2005 and found that 34 percent of the advertisements children saw on television were for candy and snacks, 28 percent for cereals, and 10 percent for fast food. None of the advertisements were for fruits or vegetables.

When faced with the threat of increased regulations on junk food ads in December 2006, 10 of the top food companies announced a commitment to devote at least 50 percent of advertising to healthier foods or messages that encourage fitness or nutrition. Unfortunately, this commitment does not appear to have translated into dietary improvements for children and youth so far.

Finally, experts say, the fact that nutritious foods can sometimes cost more than sugary snack foods (think vending machine candy bars vs. apple slices) gives young people an added economic incentive to eat poorly.

Junk Food Tax?

Such discrepancies in food costs and advertising expenditures have led some health experts to argue that we should institute a national "junk food tax," similar to cigarette and alcohol taxes. Such a measure would not only even out the playing field, says Dr. Margo Wootan, D.Sc., and obesity expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, but the money generated by the tax could be spent on campaigns to promote healthy eating and exercise programs.

"People have thought about nutrition and physical activity as purely a matter of personal responsibility for a long time," says Wootan. But now that obesity has reached epidemic levels in the United States, she says, it's clearer than ever that we're not dealing with a few individuals' lack of will power or laziness. "Unless the U.S. government starts treating the nation's poor eating and exercise habits as a public health issue," Wootan says, "the problem will only continue to get worse."

Health, not vanity

Diabetes, obesity, and smoking are collectively responsible for more than 1 million deaths a year in the United States, costing the economy about $360 billion annually. Additionally, American Cancer Society researchers say that poor nutrition, physical inactivity and obesity account for about one-third of all cancer deaths in this country.

Despite the increase in obesity, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that only 42 percent of overweight adults said that they had been told by their doctors or healthcare workers to lose weight. That's the reason health officials at the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend that doctors assess patients to determine their BMI. If they're obese, they should make weight loss counseling part of their talks.

There are also an increasing number of state initiatives across the country to address the obesity epidemic. California has led the way with the toughest school nutrition reforms, requirements of restaurant chains to post calorie information, and the adoption of the first physical education standards in the country.

Hennings, for her part, believes we'd all be better off if we threw our TVs out the window, or at least scaled back on the couch-surfing. "I know plenty of people who see nothing wrong with coming home from work at a desk job and going straight to the couch where they sit until it's time for bed," she says. "I think there would be fewer overweight people out there if they would just turn off their televisions and find something else to do."

References

Flegal, KM et al. Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2008 JAMA. 2010;303(3):235-241.

American Cancer Society. Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Facts and Figures. 2007.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food CPI, Prices and Expenditures: Foodservice as a Share of Food Expenditures. July 2007. www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/CPIFoodandExpenditures/data/table12.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity for Everyone: Recommendations. May 2007.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. New CDC study finds no increase in obesity among adults; but levels still high. November 2007.

State of California. Governor Schwarzenegger signs legislation promoting nutrition and healthier options. September 30, 2008.

Kaiser Family Foundation. Food for thought: TV food advertising to children in the United States. March 2007.

Interview with David Ramsey, Associate Director for Health Promotions at the federal government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Interview with Margo Wootan (D. Sc.), Director of Nutrition Policy, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity, 2001.

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HHS Secretary Tells Americans to Get Off the Couch, Health Behavior News Service, April 30, 2002.

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Obesityinamerica.org. Obesity Trends in U.S. Adults. 1991-2003. http://www.obesityinamerica.org/PDF/obesitytrends.pdf

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