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In Our View: ‘Good’ Obesity Rate Still Bad

Washington among leanest states, but health issues remain big concern

The Columbian
Published: November 1, 2018, 6:03am

From the category of backhanded compliments comes this recent headline in The Columbian: “County, state on healthier end of obesity lists.”

Certainly, the news could be worse; having low incidents of obesity speaks well of the lifestyle and habits of local residents. But, as they say, it’s all relative. America has an epidemic of obesity, and that is costly for the nation’s health and finances. Washington is not immune from that toll, even if we are doing better than most states.

Obesity has been linked to increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers and even mental illness, and the Centers for Disease Control says it contributes to “all causes of death” — an eye-opening summarization. Meanwhile, the nationwide costs of weight-related medical bills amount to an estimated $190 billion a year.

Compared to most of the country, residents in Clark County and throughout the state are fit and trim. About 28 percent of Washington adults — well below the national average — are counted as obese as measured by body mass index, and the state has the third-lowest obesity rate for ages 10-17. The numbers are even better in Clark County; David Hudson of the county’s public health department says the latest Healthy Youth Survey indicates that teenagers in the area have one of the lowest obesity rates in the state.

This, however, is not time to sit back and gorge on leftover Halloween candy. Having a low obesity rate compared with the national average is akin to being the best bagpipes player in the neighborhood; it’s not necessarily something to brag about.

Earlier this year, a New York Times headline pointed out, “American Adults Just Keep Getting Fatter,” a fact that is limiting our productivity and driving up health care costs. Pointing out that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults qualify as obese, Dr. James Krieger of the University of Washington was quoted as saying, “Most people know that being overweight or obese is unhealthy, and if you eat too much that contributes to being overweight. But just telling people there’s a problem doesn’t solve it.”

Therein lies the difficulty. Americans know that Brussels sprouts are good for them, but that doesn’t mean they are eager to eat them or to cut down on the potato chips.

For many years, there have been vigorous education campaigns about healthy eating and the benefits of good nutrition and the importance of exercise. As first lady, Michelle Obama focused on a campaign to make school lunches more nutritious, but guidelines were rolled back nearly as soon as the Trump administration took office.

Meanwhile, the food industry is pushing back against public-health measures aimed at combating obesity. For example, soft drink companies have contributed nearly $20 million to pass Initiative 1634 on next week’s Washington ballot by convincing voters that the measure is about groceries and not about taxes on soft drinks.

Many factors ranging from genetic to environmental contribute to our expanding waistlines, but the fact is that too many Americans eat too much food. Reupeng An and Roland Sturm have studied the issue and wrote last year for Politico: “Our analysis suggests that taxing unhealthy foods and redirecting those funds to subsidize healthy foods is a promising policy approach that deserves more work.”

In the meantime, Washington residents can be proud that we are not as obese as most of the nation. But we shouldn’t be fat and happy about it.