As a new report details the staggering impact of data showing two-thirds of Americans to be overweight or obese, it’s time to consider the root cause — and to embrace the obvious solution.
There is good news and bad news regarding the nation’s biggest health problem, which of course is obesity.
The good news is that childhood obesity rates appear to have leveled off, with actual declines in some areas of the country. But while the obesity rate among certain segments of the adult population has stabilized somewhat, the bad news is that it remains unacceptably high.
According to a new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 68.5 percent of American adults are considered overweight or obese; 34.9 percent are considered obese, with 6 percent considered severely obese (2012 data). In 2013, adult obesity rates were above 25 percent in 42 states and above 30 percent in 20 states — compared with 41 states and 13 states in 2012, respectively.
Worse, the report, “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America,” revealed significant geographic, racial and ethnic disparities, with higher rates of obesity among African Americans and Latinos for both adults and children. Inequities also persist in income and education, with poorer and less-educated Americans experiencing higher rates of obesity than more affluent and highly educated populations, when obesity data were reviewed state by state.
By the way: Can you guess which states have the highest rates of overweight and obesity in the nation? I hate to be the bearer of bad news for our friends in the South, but according to the report they are, in order, Arkansas (69.9 percent), Mississippi (69.3 percent), West Virginia (68.8 percent), Tennessee (68.4 percent) and Alabama (68.2 percent). All of those states also rank among the top seven nationally for the incidence of diabetes and hypertension, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As for the “healthiest” states, the ones with the lowest rates of obesity/overweight adults — and thus the lowest rates of diabetes and hypertension — they are, in descending order, Colorado, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and California.
I don’t want to create a red-vs.-blue-state comparison here, but you can draw your own conclusions.
The larger message is that, whatever the statistics, however slightly the data might be trending, it remains critical for the industry to hammer home the message that animal foods are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Veggie believers and animal activists are getting all kinds of traction denouncing meat-eating, and in a global context the issues they raise about the impact of livestock production on land, water and energy resources are a cause for concern — not with the highly efficient production systems common in North America, mind you, but for the “traditional” herders and ranchers elsewhere in Africa and Latin America who are responsible for overgrazing rangelands, cutting down rainforests and damaging local ecosystems.
But industry’s opponents simply denounce all of animal agriculture — period — and tar all producers with their broad brush.
A fight to win
I wish I could suggest a simple, straightforward counter to their rhetoric, but I can’t. There isn’t any. Convincing consumers of the weakness of the alleged connection between raising livestock and the threat of global warming is like trying to maintain those giant sand castles on the beach you used to build as a kid right at the water’s edge. Every time the outer walls would be finally piled high with mounds of sand, a big wave would roll in and wash away a huge section in a matter of seconds.
Likewise, turning the tide of public opinion about livestock’s impact on the environment will take constant attention, constant communications and constant proactivity on industry’s part, just to keep from getting overrun by the flood of negative media coverage.
With the issue of obesity, however, there is a simple statement that refutes the claim that meat is somehow a big contributor to the scourge of obesity. The rebuttal is this: Meat is protein, and protein can’t make your fat. It’s physiologically impossible.
Whereas carbohydrates — all the starch, sugar, corn syrup we’ve been wolfing down for the past 30 years with virtually every bite of processed and fast-food-products — are almost immediately converted to fat. The glucose created when starches and sugars are eaten are quickly converted to glyceride, which is stored as long-chain triglycerides, ie, fat.
All that fat has to go somewhere in the body, and the result is exactly what you see at the mall, at the ball game or at the grocery store: 68.5 percent of American adults who are overweight or obese. Two out of every three people.
And just to reinforce the point, when did this obesity crisis begin? It started in the late 1970s and really ramped up through the ’80s and ’90s. Why? Because the geniuses promoting the “new” Dietary Guidelines for Americans back then were so paranoid about cholesterol that they insisted people stop eating red meat and high-fat foods, which meant that food processors quickly switched to low-cal/no-cal products “fortified” with lots of sweeteners to make them palatable.
We were ordered to cut back on animal foods — meat, milk, butter, eggs — and substitute vegetable foods. Only the “vegetable” substitutes were cereals, bread, pastries, bagels and a slew of ready-to-eat products in which most of the nutritional value came from carbs, not protein — not to mention a tidal wave of snack foods high in “calories from carbohydrates,” as the nutritional packaging panels so benignly label them.
The answer, then, is this: One, eat whole foods, like the meat, milk and eggs we were once urged to avoid. Two, ditch the processed products and sugar-loaded snack foods. And three, go easy on the fruit juice and cold turkey on the soft drinks.
That’s all it takes to “cure” obesity. Simple to state, simple to do.
And ultimately, a simple way to score a significant victory for the producers and marketers of all those wholesome animal foods we should be consuming.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.