The numbers are out: America is becoming more obese. But is beating ourselves up about it making us fatter?
The Centers for Disease Control recently released its Vital Signs report on adult obesity, based on a telephone survey of 400,000 people, and the numbers were undeniably alarming. According to the report, about 2.4 million more adults were obese in 2009 than in 2007. In fact, more than 72 million U.S. adults—or 26.7 percent—are now obese. In nine states (a cluster of states in the South and Midwest that roughly overlap what has been called the “Stroke Belt”) more than 30 percent of adults are obese. And the medical care costs associated with the problem total about $147 billion.
In a teleconference calling for intensive, comprehensive efforts to address the problem, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden warned, “If we don’t more people will get sick and die from obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of death.”
But how to treat the nation’s weight problem is eliciting very differing opinions. Do we treat obesity as a moral issue, and denounce people who aren’t helping as enablers? Or is criminalizing it, in effect, making the problem worse?
Some of the more outspoken critics, such as Dr. Dennis Gottfried, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Medical School, say that overeating is the moral equivalent of smoking: Recalling an overweight colleague whose habit was to bring pastries to work at the hospital, he says, “I realized that in my mind bringing chubby nurses pastries was the same as bringing boxes of cigarettes to asthmatics! It was an act that reinforced harmful and potentially dangerous behavior.” Much like forcing smokers to go outside, Gottfried suggests, “Perhaps it is time to restrict the eating of donuts and soda to certain designated areas in large buildings…termed ‘High Caloric Areas.’”
Detractors of the tough approach say that by criminalizing or stigmatizing obesity, we could be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this article in Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Susan Albers says, “…the more we hear about what an overwhelming problem obesity is, the more people may continue to act in ways that lead them toward overeating because they feel ‘what's the point, it's impossible anyway.’” She suggests toning down the language that calls obesity an “epidemic,” or suggests we wage “war” on it, contending it won’t help the “multi-dimensional interventions” needed to reduce our collective waistline, such as providing quality nutritional education, fixing fast food and school lunches, and encouraging the nation to move.
What do you think is the best way to solve the nation’s weight problem: tough talk or, as Albers calls it, utilizing “the power of optimistic language”?