Why is no one focused on eating healthy and preventing obesity & boosting our immune system?!? Why is no one talking about the “Epidemic of Unhealthy?”
Those are the questions being asked over and over again by people on my wellness page who are critical of the public health response to COVID-19. They act shocked, like it’s unfathomable that public health officials would turn a blind eye to obesity, a known risk factor for severe COVID-19 infections. It’s preposterous to them that no one creating the public health guidelines would tell people to eat right, lose weight and lose it now, because fat and COVID-19 is a deadly combination.
But actually, what’s preposterous is that these folks believe they are saying something enlightening. What’s preposterous is to think that public health officials are ignorant of the detrimental health effects related to obesity or that they don’t talk about it. I work as a public health consultant. Right now I’m working on a specific part of the COVID-19 response. I can tell you that myself and my colleagues are well aware of the link between obesity and COVID-19. We encourage people to lose weight, but here’s the problem: It takes time to lose weight, a lot more time than it takes for a rapidly-spreading, airborne virus to infect a large number of people. It’d be great if our population was healthier and more equipped to handle a virus like COVID, but it’s not. And when you’re up against an airborne virus that is crippling our healthcare capacity and killing people, you have to focus on the population you have, not the one you wish you had.
It’s an established fact that obesity is a problem in the US and around the globe, and it’s clear that obesity is a significant risk factor for severe COVID-19 infections. It’s also, by itself, a pro-inflammatory state that can contribute to the deadly cytokine storm seen in some COVID cases. Dr. Rami Nakeshbandi and Rohan Maini recently came on my Causes or Cures podcast to explain how and why obesity does this. But, let’s not forget that obesity is a significant risk factor for other costly chronic illnesses, like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, depression, metabolic syndrome, cancer and chronic pain. It’s no secret that we’ve been battling obesity before the COVID-19 epidemic, and despite various initiatives, we haven’t made any dents. That’s sad…truly sad.
According to the CDC, nearly 42% of the US adult population is obese, and it’s predicted that this will be 50% by 2030. The WHO estimates obesity rates have tripled since 1975. There are over 1.9 billion adults in the world who are overweight, and of them, 650 million are obese. The obesity problem is not limited to adults. The WHO estimates that 38 million kids under 5 are obese and 340 million kids between the ages of 5-19 are either overweight or obese. Here’s the most interesting part:
When did the WHO declare obesity a global pandemic? 1997
When did the CDC label obesity an epidemic and call for a national prevention effort? In 1999, after a study was published in the top medical journal JAMA with very concerning data about our obesity rates. Part of what fuels our obesity epidemic is our increasingly sedentary lifestyle coupled with our overreliance on technology. We spend much of our day sitting behind a computer screen… to work, to argue online, to find someone to date, to get followers on Instagram, to fight on Twitter, to watch Netflix, to shop, to play video games. The list is endless. Even though we know this lifestyle isn’t healthy, we do it anyway. The “Sitting is the new Smoking” slogan has been around since 2014-16, but it hasn’t motivated a significant portion of the population to make the changes that need to be made.
“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”
The fact is this: We’ve been fighting the obesity epidemic a long time. But we’re not beating it, it’s beating us. It’s winning because we function in a web of inertia that prevents the changes that need to happen on both the population and indivual level.
Globally, we’ve been ingesting more calories than we are burning. This is due to mass food production, an abundance of unheatlhy food choices and an explosion of sitting. While the obvious response is that we have to eat less and move more, there are complications and multiple factors to consider.
On the population level, we need to make sure everyone, regardless of income, has easy access to healthy foods. We have to get rid of food deserts, places lacking healthy food options, and the food swamps, places saturated with unhealthy eats. We need to make sure that there is adequate and safe outdoor spaces for folks to exercise. We need to make gym memberships affordable and we need more creative educational campaigns about what to eat and what not to eat.
On the individual level, we need to address obesity in a more holistic manner. We need to talk about the link between food, exercise, sleep, stress and loneliness. These factors interact with each other in ways that can be beneficial for our health or in ways that are detrimental. They interact in a way that is pro-obesity or a way that is anti-obesity. They interact in a way that boosts immunity or in ways that dampens it. The good news is that once we become aware of how these factors relate to one another, we can modify our behavior and make choices that lead to better health.
So, again, the “Epidemic of Unhealthy” has been on the radar of public health experts for a long, long time. It’s just hard to motivate people to change. One only has to revisit the story of smoking to understand the snail’s pace of behavior change. It took years and years to undo the “smoking is cool” and “smoking is sexy” messages and finally get people to quit. While people still smoke today, the numbers have continually declined because of public health efforts. In 1954, 45% of the US adult population smoked. In 1977, it fell to 36%. In 2005, 21% of the adult population smoked and in 2016, it decreased to under 16%.
Real change takes time and effort, because humans are tough. It takes a lot of campaigns, initiatives, programs, education and maybe even fear. Behavior change is both an art and a science and a field with very few masters.
Thanks for reading,
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