For Immediate Release
July 15, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Obesity: It's Everyone's Problem

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

It’s hard not to get fat in Kansas today.

It’s an uphill battle to eat right and stay active, to strike a healthy balance between the calories we consume and the calories we burn in physical activity. It’s a daily struggle to avoid the temptation to devour more food than we should, and a real challenge to develop an exercise plan and stick with it.

For most of us, the fight against fatness is a battle against an irresistible force – a battle that’s just too difficult to imagine winning, even when losing is costing us our lives. For the majority of Kansans today, excess weight is a sad but unavoidable fate, a grim destiny that we just have to accept.

But why does it have to be this way? Why is Kansas now the 16th most obese state in the fattest nation on earth, as shown in a report released last week by the Trust for America’s Health?

Why have we seen the level of adult obesity in our state jump from less than 15 percent in the mid-1990s to about 29 percent today? Why are we witnessing an epidemic of diabetes, an incurable and costly disease that ought to be rare, but is now thought to afflict about one in ten adult Kansans?

Why are we seeing between $94 billion and $147 billion of our national wealth siphoned away every year to treat diseases caused by obesity, costs that now account for more than 10 percent of Medicaid spending in Kansas?

Most tragically, why have we seen childhood obesity triple in a single generation, putting about a third of our children at risk for developing an array of adult diseases many years before their time? Why have we condemned the children born since the year 2000 to become the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents?

Short answer: We haven’t created the public policies that make healthy eating and active living the easy thing for most people to do. We haven’t made the default options be the healthy options in the choices people make each day, options that will keep us from gaining unnecessary weight.

Instead of creating “food deserts” in many of our urban neighborhoods and rural regions where fast food outlets and convenience stores dominate the food landscape, we should be creating incentives to lure full-service supermarkets and other purveyors of fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods into these communities.

Instead of permitting the aggressive marketing of sodas, snacks and other foods with minimal nutritional value to our children – on television, in fast food promotions and even in schools – we should be setting limits on such advertising and should be actively counter-marketing against the overconsumption of unhealthy foods.

Instead of ignoring the enormous economic costs that an unfettered food industry inflicts on our nation’s spending for health care – costs that are taxing every Kansan by spiraling amounts each year – we should be considering ways to subsidize the purchase of healthy foods while raising the prices of foods that harm our collective health.

Instead of designing cities and suburbs that force people into their cars for their daily trips to work, shopping or entertainment, we should be shaping the built environment of our communities to promote more walking and biking as an intrinsic part of our everyday lives.

The new report makes it clear that obesity now is so prevalent that it threatens to undermine our nation’s future prosperity. Not taking collective action urgently to address the obesity problem at its root causes is no longer an option.

Obesity is everyone’s problem, and together we need to get serious about finding solutions that will work for Kansas.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.