We have been talking about ways to improve your health by introducing small changes to your daily routine. It’s really important to be careful about what you eat and to get moving because obesity, and obesity-related problems, are the top barriers to good health; obesity is the leading cause of diabetes and hypertension and is linked to other chronic medical conditions such as heart and kidney disease.  According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, obesity is one of the primary health concerns in communities across the country, with about 70 percent of county officials ranking it as a leading problem. One in three adults and one in six children in the United States are considered to be obese.

What is Obesity?

What does it really mean to be obese? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) classifies obesity as a body mass index (BMI) above 30. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. There’s a handy BMI Calculator available on the NIH website; all you have to do is enter your height and weight, and let the tool do the calculations.  You can also download an app onto your phone so that you can track your progress.

According to Dr. D’Arcy Duke, Director of Bariatric Surgical Services at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, obesity was only recently officially recognized as a disease. The American Medical Association (AMA) made the classification in June of 2013. Dr. Duke says that classification as a disease is important because the failure rate for people trying to lose weight on their own – and keep it off – is so high. By recognizing obesity as a disease, medical professionals have a greater opportunity to offer assistance and treatment to their patients.

“When a person is 100 pounds or more above their ideal body weight, it puts their BMI at about 40.” Dr. Duke says, “The ability to lose the weight on their own and keep it off is only about 5%, so there is a 95% failure rate. There are no other disease processes where that is an acceptable [rate] of failure. Why should obesity be any different?”

Obesity in our Region

Let’s look at the numbers for our region. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Pennsylvania as the 25th most obese state in America, with 30.2% of adults being classified as obese. The foundation also estimates that, as of 2016, 29% of adults in Cambria County and 38% of adults in Somerset County are obese. Dr. Duke says that obesity is a multifactorial issue in the region, but the major reasons for the high incidence tend to be socio-economic: “There is a lot of poverty in the region and poverty is a risk factor for obesity. Healthy foods are expensive, and cheap foods are bad for you. They are loaded with unhealthy carbs and fat.”

“My concern, from a population health standpoint, is that we have become so obese, that it is now the new normal, and childhood obesity is now a [significant] problem. Children that are obese have almost no chance of ever being able to control their own weight in their adult life. The cycle of obesity doesn’t have to be that way,” says Dr. Duke.

Available Resources

So how do we, as a community, work to combat obesity and its negative health consequences?  The most important step is to educate the community on what resources are available to them.

According to Dr. Duke, education is key. “The community needs to recognize that obesity is a disease, it needs to be treated, it leads to other diseases, and we need to support each other.”

Dr. Duke believes that education is one of the best tools available to combat obesity, but many schools in our region no longer teach home economics. According to one parent in the Westmont School District who wishes to remain anonymous, “The children are taught the food pyramid and how to read food labels in health class, and it’s a short lesson. But the kids no longer receive instructions on learning how to cook and prepare healthy meals. The district has Family Consumer and Science class in middle school, but they only teach the basics, like how to make cornbread and sew on a button.”

According to a 2016 study from the University of Michigan, the way people cook has changed in recent decades, with Americans increasingly relying on fast and convenient food options. Cooking one’s own meals can be a useful strategy for avoiding obesity, because it gives people control over the ingredients in what they eat.

Another option available to people in the region is buying food directly from local farms through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Our region has a CSA called Local Harvest. This is how it works: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically, the share consists of a box of vegetables, but it can include other farm products as well. Interested consumers purchase a share (“membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (or bag or basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. This enables consumers to be exposed to new fruits and vegetables that they may not find in stores, and exposes children (and adults) to new foods.

Conemaugh Health Systems provides medical resources for those who are seeking help to combat obesity and its co-morbid chronic illnesses. These resources include the Weight Management and Surgery program, the Conemaugh Diabetes Institute, and the Sleep Disorder Center.

What ideas do you have to help combat obesity and its negative health effects? Do you know of any other resources available to the public that you would like to share? Should schools teach kids how to prepare a healthy meal? Could we use more community gardens? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section and let’s start a conversation about obesity and how we can help our neighbors battle this epidemic.