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Obesity – The Disease of Choice
By Kathy Hare

Americans love to scream about the skyrocketing cost of health care. And there’s a lot to shout about. According to the National Coalition on Heath Care, in 2008 the average premium to insure a family of four under an employer-sponsored health insurance plan was $12,700. Health care expenses now devour 17 percent of the Gross National Product, so as Congress is scrambling to pass health care reform, they are also supposed to be finding ways to cut the soaring increases too.

But no smart politician will ever tell us what we don’t want to hear. Here’s a fact that won’t change whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or down-right anarchistic. Health care costs, whether private or government sponsored, will continue to increase until the majority of us make one essential cut. Folks, we’ve got to cut the fat! And I’m not referring to wasteful spending, although it would be great to get rid of that too. I’m talking about the fat around most Americans ever-increasing waists. Here are the disgraceful facts.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 34 percent of the population is obese, and another 32 percent is overweight. Thus overnight, normal weight people and the few Slim Jims among us have become a new minority in this country. And like many minorities before them, they are being treated unjustly. They pay higher premiums for group insurance to cover the additional medical expense incurred by their overweight co-workers.

“Science Magazine” calls it “prosperity’s plague.” Too many calories and a sedentary lifestyle created a national obesity epidemic. In my opinion the fat plague began decades ago when the remote control and fast-food restaurants both became common components of the American lifestyle. We all know the dangers of too much body fat: hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and an increased risk of cancer. Kidneys, livers, hips, and knees also suffer when overburdened by excess weight. But the bounty of cheap food combined with the ease of accomplishing tasks without exerting energy appears to be a temptation few of us can overcome.

Unfortunately the problem begins in our genes. Human bodies were designed to pack on fat in times of plenty to keep starvation at bay during food shortages. Well there haven’t been any nationwide food shortages in the last 65 years. Yet many of us are still storing fat – just in case we need to make it through a biblical seven years famine!  Now America is the “poster child” for the disease of choice – obesity. Until recently, we didn’t have a clue about how much it cost to treat obese patients. But the CDC now reports, “Obese persons spend $1,429 more on annual medical costs than persons of normal weight.” Using simple math it’s easy to see that 150 billion health care dollars are spent annually to treat patients suffering from nothing other than their own bad choices. But the amount to treat merely overweight patients who also suffer from diabetes and other weight-related diseases is still unknown.

According to the CDC, a person’s Body Mass Index “is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to both adult men and women.” People with a BMI of 30 percent or more are classified as obese. Those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 percent are overweight. Here’s an example: a person who is 5’ 9” tall is classified as having a “normal” weight if they weigh 125-168 lbs. They hit the overweight category at 169 lbs and are officially obese at 203 lbs.

You can determine your BMI by going to www.cdc.gov, and entering “BMI calculator” into the search box. Unless you’re a weightlifter with lots of heavy muscles, the measurement can let you know within seconds if you need to take control of your health by losing weight. But even if you happen to fall in the “normal” range, don’t break out the cake to celebrate before considering the results of a longevity study published in the July 10 issue of “Science Magazine.”

Since 1935 scientists have conducted experiments to determine the effects of a “calorie restrictive” diet on individuals in a number of species including yeast, worms, flies, mice, and rats. The results were the same time and again whether the individual was a bread mold, fruit fly or mouse. “Caloric restriction, without malnutrition, delays aging and extends life span in diverse species,” the Science report concludes. But men are not mice, so these studies have been easy to ignore. However, an article entitled: “Caloric Restriction Delays Disease Onset and Mortality in Rhesus Monkeys” shows the health benefits experienced by a group of Rhesus macaques who ate one-third less than they would have if left to their own devices.

The study began in 1989 at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. Seventy-six adult Rhesus macaques were observed for three to six months to determine the number of calories each monkey regularly consumed. Subjects were then divided into two groups. Half of the monkeys were assigned to a “control” group and continued to feed normally. The other half were assigned to a “calorie restriction” group. Over a three month time period their caloric intake was reduced by 30 percent. So if a “CR” monkey ate 1200 calories a day during the observation period, his diet was now limited to 840 calories per day. In 2009, the “CR” monkeys were still receiving 30 percent less calories than when the study began, and the health benefits were obvious. Five out of 38 monkeys in the control group had diabetes, and 11 others were pre-diabetic. But none of the 38 “CR” monkeys were either diabetic or pre-diabetic. There was also 50 percent less cardiovascular disease and cancer in the “CR” monkeys as compared to the control group. Brain atrophy, normally associated with aging, also declined. Most tellingly, by the end of the study the mortality rate for the “eat what you please” group was 37 percent, while only 13 percent of the “CR” monkeys died.

But the most remarkable improvement brought about by a lifetime of eating less was in the physical appearance of the “CR” monkeys. They exhibited far less signs of aging than their free-for-all eating companions. Hair retained its youthful color, muscles remained firm, and faces appeared remarkably younger than the macaques’ biological age. Gone were the enlarged noses, cloudy-eyes, and sagging skin associated with old age.

Because Rhesus macaques’ anatomy, physiology, and behavior are so similar to humans they make ideal subjects for long term experiments that cannot be conducted on humans. They have been used extensively in immunology research. Even human Rh blood factor gets its name from Rhesus monkeys because scientific knowledge of blood antigens came directly from studying the species. Therefore, I can only conclude the health benefits gained from eating fewer calories would most likely be the same for humans too.

So perhaps it’s time to stop screaming about the cost of health care and start taking responsibility for our own health. Think how much eliminating most Type 2 diabetes cases would save each year. Heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and cancer are some of illnesses we could get through life without ever experiencing, but not so long as gluttony is a national sport. Stop blaming physicians, insurance companies, or drug makers for the expense of keeping an unhealthy population healthy. And don’t expect the government to solve this problem. Unhealthy eating habits can only be corrected by the individual. So maybe the best thing we can do to stem the rising cost of health care would be to remember what it is like to hear our stomach growl.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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