Friday, June 8, 2012

Obesity grows in Alaskans

Obesity grows in Alaskans
By Clint Farr

For the Capital City Weekly

Perhaps for the first time in human history, at least in the United States, the problem with access to food is not too few calories, but too many. Not more than 50 years ago, people in this country regularly suffered through lean times when starvation was a real threat. The forces of change figured out ways to combat starvation. Crop production increased. The food distribution system widened and became more efficient. The result is cheap and widely available food. This is good. Rarely do people starve anymore. However, the flip side of successfully distributing cheap calories is manifest in our ever-growing waistlines.

In 1991 around 13 percent of Alaskans were obese. Today, 27 percent of Alaskans are obese. In 20 years, the percent of obese Alaskans doubled. You would think this would make Alaska one of the heaviest states in the union, but that's not the case. Other state obesity rates are increasing as fast or faster. Alaska is the 14th skinniest state in the union. The skinniest state now is Colorado with 21 percent of its population considered obese. Good for Colorado; maybe it's all the great skiing. But here's the thing, a state with 21 percent of its population obese would have been one of the heaviest states just 15 years ago.

We all know obesity contributes to a number of long term, and expensive, health problems. Heart disease and stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer certainly are tied to obesity. There are a number of health impacts, however, that may not be so obvious. These include esophageal reflux, gall bladder disease and gall stones, fatty liver disease, kidney stones and kidney failure, arthritis, back problems, sleep apnea, pulmonary embolism, obstetrical risk, menstrual irregularity, and infertility.

Then there are our children. They're getting pretty big too. Studies in Anchorage have shown about a 10 percent increase in children who are overweight or obese since the late 1990s. The science isn't all that optimistic for an obese child's long term health outlook. Obese and overweight children will have a lifetime increased risk of developing diabetes, asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, orthopedic problems, fatty liver disease, depression, and - not surprisingly - low self-esteem.

So is it time for you and the kids to go on a diet? Hit the treadmill? Both? Something else? There are many ways to shed excess pounds, and since good health is the ultimate goal here, physical activity is about as close as we have to a magic bullet. Recent science suggests that physical activity is the most important thing we can do to improve our health. No matter your weight, physical activity improves health outcomes. In terms of losing weight, physical activity is key to keeping the weight off. Studies, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, find that walking 30 minutes a day, regardless of weight, can dramatically improve health outcomes. Thirty minutes. Just walk 15 minutes in a straight line and turn around. That's it.

Of course what you eat, and how much you move, are personal choices. However, it is useful to acknowledge and understand the outside forces that push Americans to eat more and move less. It's our biology, the way we work, and the way we play. Recently, HBO aired a four-part documentary series, Weight of the Nation, which featured case studies and interviews with leading experts and with individuals and families struggling with obesity. Not only does the documentary hammer you with all the depressing health impacts associated with obesity, but also the many different things you, your family, and your community can do (and are doing) about it.

To ensure Juneau can get a look at the documentary so we can (once again) get enthused about our diet and fitness New Year's resolutions, folks are invited to the Egan Room at Centennial Hall from 7-9 p.m. on June 4. Dr. Ward Hurlburt, chief medical officer and director of Alaska Division of Public Health, will provide context to the obesity issue and then we'll settle in for a sampling of the HBO documentary. Partners include Bartlett Regional Hospital and Pavitt Health and Fitness. Segments from the four parts of the documentary, "Consequences," "Choices," "Children in Crisis," and "Challenges," will be shown. This event will be the first of four showings (which we will resume in the Fall after we've presumably burned a bunch of calories chasing fish all summer).

Clint J. Farr is an epidemiologist with the State of Alaska's Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion program.

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