Tackling our battle with weight
America has a big problem — and it’s growing fast. Almost 40 percent of adults and 19 percent of youth are considered obese, and those extra pounds have huge health consequences. Being obese increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and stroke, among other preventable conditions.
Obesity is at its highest level ever. But, as anyone who has tried to diet knows (and isn’t that almost all of us?), losing weight can feel like a losing battle.
The roots of obesity are inextricably entwined in American culture. In our fast-paced society, we eat fast food at our desks and in our cars. We equate food with comfort and eat a slice of chocolate cake simply to feel its warm embrace. Our kids are brought up on processed foods, with taste buds trained on sugary snacks. In food deserts, it’s easier to grab a bag of chips than to find fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It definitely is a multifaceted problem,” says Ashley Rolnik, PhD, director of Behavioral Medicine in Gastroenterology and Weight Management at NorthShore University HealthSystem and a clinical psychologist who runs NorthShore’s Jump Start behavioral weight loss group. “There are so many triggers that cause us to eat. The social factors, emotional factors, psychological factors, biological factors and environmental factors — all of that plays into eating.”
America’s obesity problem particularly hits those who are poor. “Healthy foods aren’t always available,” Rolnik says. “You can see the socioeconomic differences in terms of the obesity epidemic.”
For many, food is tied into emotional eating. “If you think about ads on television, they make food look savory, and they advertise it in such a way that it’s linked with very emotional things. Think about Thanksgiving dinner. It’s linking food with togetherness, family and feelings of happiness, closeness, warmth,” Rolnik says.
What we need are healthy lifestyle changes, not just short-term diets, she says. For those who have trouble implementing such changes, a group program, such as Weight Watchers or a behavioral weight loss group through a local hospital, can be helpful. Programs teach participants to track what they’re eating, be more active, eat mindfully and cope with stress.
Addressing obesity can be tricky, as we blame and shame ourselves and others. There is a misperception that those with obesity are lazy or not trying, Rolnik says. “In reality, many of the patients I see have tried to [lose weight] on their own for years, sometimes decades. If it was just a matter of being lazy or not motivated, we wouldn’t be in the predicament that we’re in.”
Weight loss surgery, including new minimally invasive options, can be the answer for many. Studies show that it’s the most effective way to treat obesity, yet few who are eligible for bariatric surgery get it.
In this issue of Chicago Health, we look at the many facets of America’s obesity crisis, including the problem of childhood obesity, the growing incidence of type 2 diabetes, successful bariatric surgery options and how obesity disproportionately affects those with disabilities.
In the struggle to break our nation’s skyrocketing obesity rates, we will need to make healthy food more accessible and affordable. We need to get our kids up and active, making smart choices instead of being glued to their smart phones.
Fighting obesity is not easy, but it starts with recognizing the problem and moving together, as a society, toward a solution.
Originally Published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.