The University Record, April 3, 2000

Many losing battle of the bulge

By Pete Barkey
Health System Public Relations

America is becoming larger and it has nothing to do with international boundaries or population size. It’s the people who are expanding—at the waistline.

Experts in the Health System are calling the trend toward a more obese society an epidemic. They’re urging people to exercise more, eat smaller portions, be cautious with low carbohydrate diets and to be aware of their body mass index, the best measurement for obesity.

“We have a national epidemic in obesity,” says Diane Howlin, assistant professor of internal medicine. “In fact, within the last decade, the obesity rate has risen roughly 50 percent in the United States. This is a very serious problem—especially in Michigan.”

At 22 percent, Michigan’s obesity rate is one of the worst in the nation. The obesity rate is defined as the percentage of people who have a body mass index above 30.

“These are seriously overweight people,” Howlin says. “They’re not people who need to lose 10 or 15 pounds.”

Howlin says the best way to determine your ideal body weight is to calculate your body mass index. This is done by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. An ideal body mass index is 25 or less. Obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 or higher.

Obesity is linked to several serious health problems, including much higher cancer rates, coronary artery disease, increased risk of infections, and osteoarthritis.

“Morbidity and being overweight are directly related, especially in white Americans,” Howlin says. She notes that African Americans don’t seem to suffer the complications from being overweight to the extent that white Americans do.

Obesity can be caused by both medical and psychological factors.

“There can be emotional triggers that lead a person to become obese,” Howlin says. “Sometimes a person will eat to cover up a problem or to ease themselves when feeling stressed. This pattern can be learned early in life. In serious cases, it becomes an eating disorder where a person binges on food.”

Howlin says there are a number of ways to lose weight, exercise being the healthiest option.

“The best way to lose weight is to exercise more,” she says. “There are far too few people exercising in this country. Approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population exercises three or more days a week. As a society, we need to become more active, we need to get up and move around and also cut down on our portion size so that the balance of the food-in versus calories-out is changed in favor of the latter.”

Howlin says it’s important to keep exercising, even after successful weight loss.

“Many people who go on a diet will find that a year or two later they’ve regained all the weight and sometimes more. The best way to combat this is to keep exercising. Studies have shown that people who maintain their diet, but don’t exercise, will often regain all their lost weight.”

Howlin says it’s also important for people interested in going on special diets, like the low carbohydrate diets, to inform their doctors in order to avoid potential health risks, citing examples of people with impaired kidneys who have had to be put on the renal transplantation list because of the damage caused by excessive protein intake.

Howlin says some of the diet medications on the market can be helpful when used as part of a larger weight loss program that includes exercise and lower consumption. As with any medication, use should be coordinated with a physician.

“My overall advice to somebody who is battling weight and has been doing so for a long time,” Howlin says, “is to simply reduce your dinner plate size to a luncheon plate. Fill the plate once with a sensible portion and then be done. Then, every day find a way to walk for at least 15 minutes as a starting point to increased exercise.”