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Major Health Problems in the U.S.

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Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Americans continue to become less healthy and less productive, mainly because of lifestyle.  That’s the conclusion of a new Gallup study released this week.  More than 30% of American workers are overweight and have one or more chronic health problems.  And the economic cost is staggering.  The American economy now suffers annual lost productivity costs of more than $153 billion.  In addition, the Gallup survey says that U.S. workers with weight and health issues miss more than 450 million days of work each year.  So is there a national outcry? Not really.

With such staggering and detrimental figures continuing to grow, one would think that this current campaign season would offer ample opportunities for a robust debate for encouraging  a healthier work force that would lead to a healthier economy.   My home state of Louisiana is in the final days of a statewide election.  Health issues haven’t even scratched in the local rhetoric.  Nor have health related economic concerns been mentioned in the current presidential debates.

Republican presidential candidates flocked to Sin City this week, for another debate at the lush Venetian Hotel. Las Vegas was the site for the Western Republican Leadership Conference, and all presidential aspirants were in attendance with the exception of former Utah Governor John Huntsman.  Finding a fix to make workers healthier would seem to be a good step towards greater American productivity, and a way to strengthen the current lagging economy.  But there was nary a mention of the issue by any Republican presidential wanna be.

Not only is the health of American workers a major drag on the economy, there is a direct correlation to the increase costs of Medicare.  Yes, we are living longer.  In the past, someone obese just didn’t live as long.  But new technologies and drugs allow even the less healthy to live a much longer life.  Yet the medical costs of  those more obese is 42% greater than for the average Medicare recipient because of their greater susceptibility to a number of life threatening diseases, including cancer, dementia, diabetes and heart disease.   As columnist David Stipp recently wrote:  “From the economist’s point of view, tens of millions of pot-bellied boomers entering their Medicare years is not a pretty sight.  If our society is serious about trimming future budget deficits, we’ll first have to trim our swelling waistlines.”

But don’t look to Hollywood for good and healthy role models.  About the last thing one would expect from Stage 4 throat cancer survivor Michael Douglas is to see him smoking.  But he was spotted during a recent family vacation on a yacht off the coast of Italy — that’s right — lighting up!  Remember a few years back when his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, was photographed smoking when she was pregnant with one of their kids?

It appears that the U.S is on a direct path to being a country that is inactive, overweight, over-stimulated, and sallow-skinned.  The dramatic increase in the number of obese Americans is, or should be, alarming. A new study just out by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that Colorado has the lowest obesity percentage at 19.8 %.  But get this — just 16 years ago, with this same percentage, Colorado would have been the most obese state in America! In my home state of Louisiana, one third of the population is now obese, and the numbers continue to grow.

New studies have found that the old adage of eating in moderation and exercising more has proven to be a bust when it comes to curbing weight gain.  A new Harvard study, that followed healthcare professionals for 20 years, zeroed in on the dangers of what you eat.  One of the studies’ authors, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, warned:  “The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”

What’s the bad stuff?  Dr. Mozaffarian lists the obvious culprits. At the top of the list?  French fries.  According to the study, French fries, alone, on any regular basis, led to an average weight gain of 3.4 pounds in each four year period.   Also on the pound laden list were potato chips (1.7 pounds), red meats and  processed meats (.95 pounds) all forms of potatoes (.57 pounds), sugar-sweetened drinks (1 pound) fried foods (.32 pounds), refined grains (.39 pounds), sweets and desserts (.41 pounds), and butter (.3 pounds).

Yogurt and nuts lead the top weight loss list, and the study reinforced the age old adage of eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains. My basic rule is stay away from anything white –  white rice, white bread, sugar, etc.

Of course, to increase your odds of a longer, healthier life, you can take the whole food choice option scenario to an extreme.   Former President Bill Clinton was on the David Letterman show last week, and talked about how healthy he is, and how good he feels following a vegan diet. (For the interview, go to http://www.jimbrownla.com.) Basically, Clinton sticks to all fruit and veggies, with no dairy, or meats from any living creature, which includes fish, chicken and meat.  Talk about a commitment!  But it works, if you can learn to live with tofu.  Remember that Clinton has had two heart operations, so he has a lot more reason and motivation to stick to an extreme diet for a longer life.  Nevertheless, for a man who has enjoyed many a Big Macs in his day, his discipline is admirable.

Recent proposals to deal with the growing obesity problem include a “fat tax” on foods with questionable nutritional value.  Some have also suggested that those who are obese, yet make no effort to deal with their problem, should pay higher Medicare costs. But the naysayers to such ideas say government should have no such invasive role, and any taxes on unhealthy food products is an invasion of one’s personal freedom of choice.

The counter argument is that when you and I have to pay the medical costs of others who are irresponsible in their eating choices, are they not are infringing on our freedoms to be left alone and not have to foot their bill?  The public cost of obesity continues to rise and is projected to hit $344 billion by 2018.  And 60% of this cost, dear reader, is born by taxpayers. Make no mistake, that’s you and me.

Obesity in America is not a new problem, but its continuing increase makes it a more urgent problem by the day.  A major disappointment is that here is no focus or leadership on this critical issue coming from either political party or any presidential candidate.  And when the campaigns are over and gone, you and I will be the losers — we’ll be stuck with the bill.


“In this time of financial crisis, it’s now clear that Americans can improve the economy as well as their own health prospects by giving up a few pounds.”

Dr. Jonathon Lord

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the South and on websites worldwide.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.






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