Obesity hard to treat, experts say

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
May 29, 1998

WASHINGTON - Americans are fat, getting fatter, and may not be able to do anything about it, nutritionists said Thursday, and it will take serious social changes to save the next generation from being even more obese, they added.

Writing in the journal Science, nutritionist James Hill of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver and John Peters at Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati said it was not enough to tell people to eat less and exercise more.

"We ignore the obvious sometimes about what's causing the problem," Hill said in a telephone interview. "I think we have got to realize that yelling at people louder is not going to get them to do things."

Obesity has been declared a global epidemic by the World Health Organization and the International Obesity Task Force.

But it is worst in the United States, where 54 percent of the adults are overweight and 22 percent are obese.

A quarter of all American children are overweight or obese, as well, and similar trends are seen in Britain, Canada, Australia, Sweden and Brazil.

"If this trend continues, the entire U.S. adult population could be overweight within a few generations," Hill and Peters wrote.

They, along with other experts, explained how hard it is to fight obesity in humans in a series of reports in this week's Science. Humans evolved to put on fat to get through lean times, and the body is loath to give up even an ounce.

Genes, brain chemicals and programmed behavior all conspire to make sure that extra energy gets stored during times of plenty. But in the late 20th century, every day is a time of plenty.

"The whole food supply is high-fat," Hill complained. Portions are huge and getting bigger, and people are simply not programmed to leave food on their plates.

But he does not think restaurant reform will be enough to help people who are already overweight, or headed there.

"I think I would put my money on saving the kids," he said. "I think obesity is a difficult situation to reverse once it's there. I hate to say they're doomed, but I think we might be better able to prevent it than to cure it."

And the country had better act fast, he added.

"We've got the fattest, least fit generation of kids ever," he said. "I think the next generation of kids, all things being what they are now, are going to be even fatter."

The real key, he said, will be exercise.

"One thing that I think we could really accomplish is get physical activity back in the schools," he said.

Parents also had to get their children to exercise -- and not "lay on the couch, eating pizza and watching TV" while they do it, Hill said.

Hill and Peters suggest that employers and insurers could give people incentives to exercise.

"If somehow your number of vacation days were tied to your physical fitness level, it would probably be cost-effective to do things like this," he said. "Active people have fewer health problems. They'd take fewer sick days. You could given them a break on their insurance."

Policymakers needed to get involved, too. "This is a serious threat to the health of Americans," Hill said.

"It may take decades. But if you said in the 1950s, we should stop the smoking epidemic, people would have said never."

By MAGGIE FOX, Health and Science Correspondent

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