One in Five American Deaths Now Associated with Obesity
December 21, 2013
By Dr. Mercola
A new report reveals staggering statistics about the extent to which the obesity epidemic is robbing Americans of their health and longevity. Columbia University and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation examined the real impact of obesity on death rates.1
The study found that nearly one in five US deaths is associated with obesity, which is more than three times higher than previous estimates.
The effect varies somewhat by your gender, race and age. The younger you are, the greater obesity's influence on your mortality. And contrary to a previous study2, obesity is not protective if you're elderly. The Columbia study found the following percentage of deaths associated with high BMI (body mass index):
- Black women: 26.8 percent of deaths were associated with a BMI of 25 or above (overweight or obesity)
- White women: 21.7 percent
- White men: 15.6 percent
- Black men: 5 percent
The authors wrote:
"We believe that it is imperative for the US public and those who construct policy for that public to recognize that population health and more than a century of steady gains in life expectancy are being jeopardized by the obesity epidemic. Indeed, evidence has already implicated high rates of obesity as a significant contributor to the United States' relatively low life expectancy among high-income countries."
But It May Be Even Worse...
Obesity rates could be much worse than these studies suggest, for a couple of reasons. First, the number of Americans who are overweight or obese increases every year and is already considerably higher today than it was in 2006, the final year for data used in the Columbia University study.3
Secondly and more importantly, the study uses BMI to gauge obesity, which is a seriously flawed index that doesn't take into account percentage body fat, or the distribution of that fat.
When those variables are factored in, the number of people who meet the criteria for obesity is MUCH higher—possibly even twice as high! Even without adjusting for body fat, if obesity trends are accurate, societal impacts will be far worse by 2030. Rates of "extreme obesity" (people with a BMI above 40) have risen by 350 percent over the past few years.4
As far as simple indicators go, waist size is a better predictor of heart disease risk than body weight or BMI. Determining your waist size is easy. With a tape measure, figure the distance around the smallest area of your abdomen below your rib cage and above your belly button. If you're not sure if you have a healthy waist circumference, a general guide is:
- For men, between 37 and 40 inches is overweight and more than 40 inches is obese
- For women, 31.5-34.6 inches is overweight and more than 34.6 inches is obese
Obesity as a Harbinger of Death
Unfortunately, obesity statistics are a bit tricky to determine because obesity itself is never listed as the cause of death. Instead, the complications of obesity, such as heart disease or diabetes, are blamed for a person's death. If you are obese, your risk for a number of serious health problems multiplies. Eight obesity-related diseases account for a staggering 75 percent of healthcare costs in the US. These diseases include:
The four diseases in the left column are associated with metabolic syndrome, which is a common factor in obesity. However, several other diseases fall within this category as well, which are listed on the right. And many more could be added to that list. According to the Surgeon General, in addition to the above, obesity increases your risk for asthma, sleep disorders (including sleep apnea), depression, pregnancy complications, and poor surgical outcomes.5
While obesity is associated with metabolic syndrome and the diseases mentioned above, it is not their cause; it is simply a marker. The common link among them is metabolic dysfunction, and excessive sugar/fructose consumption is a primary driver. Please realize that you can have metabolic dysfunction and be prone to "obesity-related diseases," even if your body weight is fine—you can't rely on your BMI alone, as it won't give you the complete picture.
Societal Forces Promote Rampant Metabolic Dysfunction
Socioeconomic forces and a food system that is stacked against healthful eating make it extremely difficult for many people to adopt a healthful lifestyle. This is compounded by the vast sea of misinformation out there, some of which comes directly from government regulators and so-called nutrition experts.
One dogma that has contributed to the ever-worsening health of Western society is "a calorie is a calorie." This is one of the first things dieticians are taught in school, but unfortunately, it is completely FALSE! A second common myth is that obesity results from eating too much and exercising too little—i.e., consuming more calories than you're expending. This has led to the view that obese people are simply "lazy."
But there are societal forces at work that go beyond personal habits. An increasing number of infants are even becoming obese, and "laziness" is certainly not a label that can easily be affixed to an infant. The societal changes over the past 60 years have created what amounts to the perfect storm for eroding human health—a dramatically changing food environment, combined with reduced exercise and increased exposure to a wide array of industrial and agricultural chemicals that have adverse biological effects.
Key among these changes to our food environment is the excessive use of sugar, added to virtually all processed foods primarily in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And this is where the fallacy of "a calorie is a calorie" comes into play, because a calorie from fat does not impact your body in the same way as a calorie from sugar. The single largest factor driving obesity is excess sugar in the Western diet, specifically fructose.
The problem is further inflamed by the recent proclamation by the American Medical Association that "obesity is a disease," which ignores obesity's root causes and calls Big Pharma to the rescue. Conveniently, two new prescription weight loss drugs have recently been released, and two obesity vaccines are under development. Drugs are not the answer, no matter how convincing their advertising campaigns may be. The only way to reverse these trends is with diet and lifestyle changes.
Similar to Drinking Alcohol, Excessive Sugar Acts as a Poison
According to Dr. Robert Lustig, one of the leading experts on childhood obesity, excessive amounts of sugar can serve as a toxin that contributes to obesity in a big way, as well as many chronic and lethal diseases. Research shows that fructose can activate taste cells found on your pancreas, which can increase your body's secretion of insulin and raise your risk of type 2 diabetes. Dietary sugar combines with amino acids to create advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in your body, and these compounds cause damage that leads to disease and premature aging.
The idea of losing weight by counting calories simply isn't a valid approach because your body metabolizes glucose and fructose along two distinctly different pathways. Fructose is broken down very much like alcohol, damaging your liver and causing mitochondrial and metabolic dysfunction in the same way as ethanol and other toxins. Your liver immediately converts most of the fructose you eat into fat, for storage. So, you get fat because you are eating the wrong types of calories, as opposed to too many calories, and the problem is amplified by not getting enough exercise.
The average American consumes one-third of a pound of sugar per day, half of which is fructose. As a standard recommendation, I strongly advise keeping your TOTAL fructose consumption below 25 grams per day. You may find this fructose chart helpful in estimating how many grams of fructose you are consuming each day.
Tips for Conquering Obesity, Once and For All
For optimal health and longevity, it is necessary to return to a lifestyle closer to our hunter-gatherer roots. We've strayed too far from the foods we were designed to eat, so going back to basics with a focus on fresh, unprocessed whole foods, with a minimal amount of sugar and grain, will prevent most people from becoming overweight. Addressing the following diet and lifestyle factors is your best way of achieving a long and healthy life!
- Proper Food Choices
For a comprehensive nutrition guide, refer to my optimal nutrition plan. Generally speaking, focus on consuming whole, ideally organic, unprocessed foods that come from healthy, sustainable and preferably local sources. For the highest nutritional benefit, eat a good portion of your food raw.
Although there are clearly individual differences, most people would do well to strive for a diet high in healthful fats (as high as 50-70 percent of the calories consumed), moderate amounts of high quality protein, and abundant vegetables. Non-vegetable carbohydrates should be a fairly small part of your overall diet. For sweetening, you can use the herb stevia, or natural cane sugar and honey in very small amounts.
- High Quality Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats
Increase your intake of omega-3 fats and reduce your intake of processed omega-6 fats. An animal-based omega-3 fat like krill oil is essential for heart and brain health.
- Comprehensive Exercise Program, including High-Intensity Exercise
Even if you're eating the best diet in the world, you still need to exercise—and exercise effectively—if you wish to optimize your health. You should be incorporating core-strengthening exercises, strength training, and the right kind of stretching, as well as high-intensity "burst" type activities. Consider combining these with intermittent fasting to supercharge your metabolism. Extreme endurance training has been scientifically proven to do more harm than good so should be avoided.
- Optimize Your Vitamin D
The important factor when it comes to vitamin D is your serum level, which should ideally be between 50-70 ng/ml year-round, and the only way to determine this is with a blood test. Sun exposure or a safe tanning bed is the preferred method, but a vitamin D3 supplement can be used when necessary. Most adults need about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D per day to achieve serum levels of 40 ng/ml.
If you take supplemental vitamin D, you also need to make sure you're getting enough vitamin K2, as these two nutrients work in tandem to ensure calcium is distributed into the proper areas in your body. Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the symptoms of vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries. Fermented vegetables can be a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture designed to generate vitamin K2 like the one we will offer later this year. Gouda and Edam cheese are also good sources.
- Stress Reduction and Emotional Housekeeping
There are often emotional factors underlying weight gain, so it's important to do some regular emotional housekeeping. In fact, your emotional state plays a roll in nearly every physical disease, and yet it's the factor most often neglected. Stress has a direct impact on inflammation, which underlies many of the chronic diseases that kill people prematurely every day. Meditation, prayer, yoga, and energy psychology tools such as Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) are all viable options that can help you relieve stress and clear out hidden emotional blocks.
- Avoid as Many Chemicals, Toxins, and Pollutants as Possible
This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, cosmetics, air fresheners, bug sprays, pesticides and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.
- Earthing, or Grounding Yourself to the Earth
When walking barefoot on the earth, free electrons transfer from the ground into your body through the soles of your feet. These free electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known to man. Experiments have shown that these electrons decrease pain and inflammation, improve heart rate, promote sound sleep, and make your blood less viscous, which has a beneficial impact on your health.
Lack of grounding due to widespread use of rubber or plastic-soled shoes has contributed to the rise of modern diseases by allowing chronic inflammation to proliferate unchecked. So the more you can walk barefoot on the ground, the better. Ideal locations are the beach, close to or in the water, and on dewy grass. If you spend much time indoors, you may want to consider investing in an Earthing mat.
- Drink plenty of fresh, pure water every day.
- Be sure to get plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep.