Local actions can shift obesity trends

My futurists' "keeps me awake at night" list is led by the explosion of obesity, the rapidly rising rate of children born with damaged brains leading to conditions like autism, and the rapidly growing federal and states debts. In my mind they are all linked. 

Let me show you how.

Start with the fact that almost six million Americans now have Alzheimer's . Twelve million of us now have Cancer. We worry a lot about those diseases, and spend lots of money trying to find a cure.  Now consider that an astonishing one hundred million Americans are Obese - one third of our population - and the number is growing (no pun intended). We have almost five times more individuals sick with Obesity than the diseases we tend to focus on. 

Next, think about this - Alzheimer's , Cancer and Obesity are not contagious.

Instead, they are often genetically present but asleep in our bodies until awakened by factors in our biological environment such as toxins and environmental poisons, or factors in our cultural environment - the presence or absence of healthy food, "Supersizing" drinks, tobacco use, and so forth.

This means that if we are turn this situation around we have to attack it on both fronts - by removing the toxins through environmental regulation (hard), and by changing the cultural environment (harder).

Both of these actions can quickly be labeled as excessive interference in personal or corporate freedom, and become political footballs. Before backing away from that challenge, consider this: Obesity is responsible for one in five dollars spent in the United States healthcare system!

In addition, overweight and obese pregnant women give birth, on average, to twice as many children with brain problems and other health problems as women of more desirable weight , resulting in massive lifetime care costs. These costs have to be added to the numbers above. 

Right now we have 1/3 of our citizens Obese, and another 1/3 overweight and headed toward obesity quickly. Only 1/3 of us are of healthy weight! We are in the midst of a slow motion "epidemic" which is destroying lives, destroying our economy, and damaging unborn generations. We must act.

Rising public and private healthcare costs from obesity will increase our countries financial problems.  Taxable income will go down. Healthcare and social costs will inexorably go up. So our national debt will continue to increase - or dramatic changes to prevent this disease will have to be made quickly. If we are to navigate our way out of this mess, we will have to change our behavior as a society, through national and local actions. 

One of the first steps is to name the problem. With Obesity, a social norm exists that says we don't comment about it to someone suffering from it. It is considered impolite. On the other hand, you cannot fix something that is not talked about. This can be done locally.

The second thing to be done is to count it, and report the results to both the individual and the community as combined, trended (not individual) information. This meaningful action can also be taken locally.

Obesity is measured by a formula using your height and weight which produces what is called your Body Mass Index (BMI). Since calculations only require the measurement of height and weight, it is a simple exercise for schools and churches to do for their members.

Lessons learned by schools that have used BMI measurements regularly indicate that it takes several combined interventions to cause reductions. Researchers also identify that without the basic data little motivation exists to begin those lifesaving efforts.

One excellent place to go for help in setting up a BMI measurement program for a church or school is ShapeUp.org. They offer proven research, legal forms, draft letters to parents reporting results, and all the rest of the materials needed to start a program. 

Some local movement has begun. After a modest project involving entering kindergartners, the
Cabarrus County Schools started recording BMI for elementary and middle school students in 2008 with the help of a grant funded project. This initiative was boosted by the release of startling numbers documenting the rise in obesity released for the state as a whole. These numbers led to alteration of school health and physical fitness activities to encourage more student movement. The school lunch program was modified to encourage better eating. These included presentation of health food items and providing students with the caloric value of foods served.

These low cost solutions are just a sample. Evidence says that each one dollar spent in prevention yields six in downstream cost savings.

We are at a crossroads. and neither choice is easy. We can try to change our culture - or we can go broke and have our kids die young. It is up to you.