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Fat's Not Where It's At

Obesity worse than smoking and drinking

FRIDAY, June 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Forget the Marlboro Man. The Pillsbury Doughboy is the guy to worry about.

The Rand Institute reported yesterday that obese people have double the rate of chronic illness, compared with people of normal weight, and worse health than people with a lifetime smoking habit, a heavy drinking habit or people who are poor.

"We were surprised that obesity is associated with more health problems than smoking, heavy drinking or poverty," says Roland Sturm, a Rand Institute economist.

He and Rand colleague Kenneth Wells co-authored the report, which was published in the latest edition of the British journal Public Health.

Sturm says because obesity has been sharply rising only recently, worse health problems might be on the horizon. "If there are long-term effects of obesity, we might not even be seeing them yet," he says.

The report found more overweight and obese Americans than smokers, heavy drinkers or people living in poverty combined. Thirty-six percent of Americans are overweight, and 23 percent more are obese as measured by body mass index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight. For example, a person who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 174 pounds or more is obese according to the BMI standard. At the same time, 14 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, 19 percent are smokers and 6 percent are heavy drinkers.

"The issue is: What can be done about this?" Sturm says. As much attention should be paid to stopping obesity as to stopping smoking, he says.

"Doctors ask their patients about smoking and drinking, but neglect weight and exercise counseling," he says.

Sturm and Wells analyzed data from a 1998 telephone survey of more than 9,500 adults The survey asked questions about weight, height, income, smoking, drinking and health status. Interview included questions about 17 chronic health problems, such as diabetes, angina, high blood pressure, chronic back pain and arthritis.

"Obesity has reached epidemic proportions. There are approximately 300,000 deaths annually from obesity," says Cathy Nonas, director of the VanItallie Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at New York City's St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. "But people don't think of it as a disease, but more as an issue of self-discipline."

At the same time, she says the increase in corporate wellness centers, for example, shows a growing awareness of the ill effects of obesity.

"When 59 percent of the population is overweight, you have to assume that everyone is going to have to deal with it sooner or later," says Nonas.

The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

What To Do

The American Obesity Association has more information. How to measure your BMI can be found at Partnership for Health Weight Management. Go to the American Dietetic Association for nutrition and diet advice.

Or, read previous HealthDay articles about obesity.

SOURCES: Interviews with Roland Sturm, Ph.D., economist, Rand Institute, Santa Monica, Calif.; Cathy Nonas, R.D., director, VanItallie Center for Nutrition and Weight Management, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Center, New York, N.Y.; June 2001 Public Health
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