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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2000 /3 Shevat, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Monica may be onto something -- AGAIN THIS JANUARY, "losing weight" is topping the new year's resolutions lists of many Americans. They may just want to look good. But former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, in a press conference for his "Shape Up America!" public awareness campaign, called unhealthy weight "one of the most serious public health threats of the 21st century."

Shape Up America! notes that nearly 100 million American adults are overweight according to their Body Mass Index (BMI), a mathematical formula that correlates with body fat now considered by most health care professionals to be the most accurate gauge of weight health. To figure your BMI, get your calculator and multiply your weight in pounds by 705. Divide that by your height in inches. Divide this again by your height in inches. A total of under 25 is generally considered OK. (The American Cancer Society says the ideal for women is 22 to 23.4, for men 23.5 to 24.9)

But unless a person has a lot of heavy muscle mass from being a body builder or there is some other mitigating factor, at a BMI of 25 he is overweight, at 27 seriously overweight, at 30 obese.

The bad news is that, on average, Americans in every age group are fatter, and are becoming fatter faster, than ever before. From 1987 to 1997 alone, American adults gained an average of 8 pounds apiece. Fifteen years ago, one-quarter of Americans were seriously overweight or obese. Today over one-third are. (In hopes of reversing this trend, Shape up America! is promoting a Shape Up and Drop 10 (TM) personalized weight loss program through its website at

Of course we Americans have done with the excess weight issue what we often do when the going gets rough: We go in a direction we like better.

Harry Balzer is with the NPD Group, a marketing research firm in suburban Chicago. His focus is food, and every year his firm asks respondents to agree or disagree with the statement "people who are not overweight look a lot more attractive." In 1985, 55 percent of Americans agreed with that assessment. In 1990, 40 percent did. In 1999, only 20 percent did.

Balzer told me he's especially intrigued by the "fried chicken" question. When asked, "Do you encourage or discourage the consumption of fried chicken?" in 1985, 19 percent of Americans said they discouraged it. By 1999, 40 percent discouraged it. But during these same years what's been one of the biggest growth areas for restaurant food? Fried chicken ---called anything but "fried chicken."

Women's dress sizes really tell the story. Today's size 8 fits what used to be considered a size 10 or 12 body. As the late humorist Erma Bombeck said of this trend, "it's been noted that Calvin Klein is a 'forgiving' designer. His size 8s fit bodies that haven't seen a size 8 since they were in grade school. He's not only forgiving, but downright compassionate."

What's made some of this denial and self-deception easier is the notion that "fat can be fit." This is seen in everything from groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, to books like "Big Fat Lies" by Glenn Gaesser, to some medical writers whose "findings" that being overweight isn't unhealthy get into the popular culture --- though the scientific refutations of them don't --- to even the increased use of obese models overtly portrayed as the picture of health.

All this is happening at the same time several major studies have shown that even very moderate amounts of excess weight puts a person at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, a variety of cancers, many other diseases --- and premature death. In fact such studies, including one very recently concluded by the American Cancer Society involving over a million men and women, have shown that the risk of premature death rises so significantly with excess weight that leading public health and obesity experts have determined that some 300,000 American deaths a year are caused by excess weight. That makes it the second leading preventable cause of death behind cigarette smoking.

There are lots of reasons for our nation's dramatic weight increase but it all comes down to one simple thing: Even in the age of sugar-free and low-fat foods, health clubs and gyms on every corner, books on weight-loss consistently topping best seller lists, and yes, New Year's resolutions every January, too many Americans take in more calories than they expend. So ironically we may be obsessing about our weight, while actually ignoring the health consequences of being overweight, more than ever before. And that puts us on one unhealthy treadmill.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Scripps Howard News Service