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Columnists | Opinion

Columnist: Battle of the bulge continues to despoil US as obesity looms

When I was a little girl, I had an unhealthy predilection for Karo syrup.

My father once found me in the kitchen pantry quaffing the sugary goodness from the bottle. I was the girl you’d look at and think, “Hey, there’s diabetes in the making.”

Although this proves a somewhat comical memory from my childhood, it also had serious health implications. If my parents hadn’t provided me with a healthy, balanced diet growing up, in addition to encouraging regular physical activity, I could be facing serious health concerns today.

Drinking that syrup surreptitiously in the pantry made me feel like a minority; however, if my habits had not changed, I would certainly find myself in the company of millions who also drink sugar regularly, helping to fuel the obesity epidemic that continues to feast on this nation.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that over 100 million adults or 33.8 percent of the United States’ population were obese — obese for an adult being defined as an individual with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher — and in 2008 over a third of both children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese.

The CDC have estimated that obesity costs Americans approximately $147 billion in direct medical costs annually. To put this in perspective, the direct medical costs for all cancers combined totaled approximately $102.8 billion in 2010.

Furthermore, research conducted by the Society of Actuaries (SOA) found that both the economic and medical costs of obese and overweight individuals were estimated to approach $270 billion annually. We’re pointing fingers at Congress for increasing the national debt without even acknowledging our own direct contributions to the fiscal deficit.

The speck is all the more alluring than our own plank.

According to a study sponsored by MaineHealth and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, overweight and obese Mainers are costing the state an estimated $2.56 billion in medical costs, lost worker productivity and worker’s compensation. Talk about squandering away money.

In attempts to curb this obesity epidemic, policymakers are not only advocating for increased funding to prevention campaigns but are also attempting to add restrictions to what one can purchase on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the country’s food stamp program.

In 2009, former Rep. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough, proposed a bill banning the use of food stamps for sugared soda and certain junk foods, as in Maine, food stamp dollars are used to buy sugared, carbonated beverages totaling about $20 million annually. That’s an inordinate amount of sugar, fueling a lifestyle that will end up costing the state in medical costs.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a similar ban on using food stamps for soda. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied this proposal, much to the chagrin of Bloomberg and medical experts alike. Yale public health professor Kelly D. Brownell said in response to the USDA’s decision: “It’s a real shame. … The government purchases $4 billion worth of soda through the food stamp program every year, and that soda is making people sick.”

Another effort targeting the obesity epidemic is proposing a tax on sodas and certain junk foods. Kiyah Duffey, research assistant professor of nutrition at the University of

North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has conducted a longitudinal study on the possible association between the price of soda and pizza with weight and other factors.

“Our results showed that changes in price of these food items — an increase in price — was associated with lower weight gain,” she said. “This suggests that raising the price of these foods, soda and pizza in particular, could result in positive beneficial changes in health.”

Duffey also pointed out that “taxing food is not THE solution, but it could be ONE solution, which, when implemented in combination with a number of other broad intervention measures, might actually help.”

According to a 2011 study, Maine was ranked as the most obese state in New England, with approximately 26.8 percent of Mainers considered to be obese.

We need radical reform now on both the policy level as well as the personal level. It’s time to stop sugar-coating our unhealthy habits.

We’re obese, we’re overweight, we’re getting sick and we’re costing this nation billions of dollars. Put down the sugared drinks. Drink water instead of soda. Go for a walk. Care about your health, as we alone are the masters of our own fate.


Erin McCann is a fourth-year biology student. Her columns will appear every Monday.