The HBO documentary, The Weight of the Nation, reveals some scary, though not surprising information. I am most disturbed by the childhood obesity epidemic. This will cost our country immeasurably in the future, specifically in health care expenditure and lost productivity. What is most troubling is the number of factors contributing to this problem and the uphill battle we are facing to correct them.
First, let’s examine the financial aspect. A McDouble cheeseburger with a large Sweet Tea from McDonald’s costs $2 and provides 670 calories, 76 grams of sugar and 19 grams of fat (8 grams of saturated fat). A Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken (no drink) costs $4 and had only 290 calories. Unfortunately, this pricing dichotomy extends beyond fast food and infiltrates convenience stores, supermarkets and restaurants. Processed, sugar-laden products are cheaper than fresh, wholesome foods. It is a very hard to convince families who are watching their spending to lay out more money for something healthier that, additionally, “doesn’t taste as good.” However, people who consistently eat healthy foods often lose their taste for junk, so this is more of an initial than a long-term problem. The money issue, unfortunately, is not. Even with all that said, adding fruits and vegetables is not enough. The authors of a recent study I reviewed showed that when inner-city children were given extra fruit and vegetables, they DID NOT curtail their consumption of other foods. This will not fix the problem.
The second giant issue I see it the culture of junk food. The parents eat it. They give it to their very young children, who then grow up eating it, essentially knowing nothing else and they continue the cycle. That, coupled with less physical activity, enlarges the obesity problem. But how can we break the cycle? All potential solutions have problems in execution, but my hopes are to provoke discussion and eventually come up with an effective solution.
I wrote an article called “Exercise is the Best Diet,” where I explain why I believe exercise is the most effective way to maintain a healthy weight, though in an indirect way. We know that you cannot out-exercise a bad diet, meaning (in almost all cases) no amount of exercise will allow a person to maintain a healthy weight in the absence of healthy dietary choices. And, a slice of pizza tastes better to most people than a salad. That being said, in my experience as a weight loss doctor and personal trainer, people who see positive changes in their bodies via exercise are more likely to make healthier choices, as they get excited when they see new definition in the arms, legs, abs, etc., not to mention the added energy and sense of well-being they feel. So it becomes “I don’t want a slice of pizza, I want something that is going to accelerate my physical change.” This works a lot better than say, “I can’t eat that slice of pizza. I will force myself to have a salad.” Over time, they will begin to crave their protein smoothies and salads instead of ice cream and cheese burgers.
Perhaps we should focus on getting kids to exercise more intensely. Let’s take a 16-year old boy who is overweight and plays his PS3 and eats potato chips after school. I don’t see him actively making dietary changes in that situation. Now, put him in a weight room and get him hooked. (It is not hard to get a guy hooked on training if started appropriately- I know because I have done it for more people than I can remember.) All of a sudden, he doesn’t want potato chips and PS3, he wants protein powder and push-ups in his basement. It happens. I see it happen all the time.
What we are doing now to combat the obesity problem doesn’t seem to be working very well, or certainly not as well as it could be. So let’s explore new ways.