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What Is Obesity?

Human weight is a big problem—in more ways than one. Obesity, the condition of having an excessive amount of body fat, has become such a serious concern that health professionals have attached the “E” word to it: epidemic. In fact, in June 2013 the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to declare obesity a disease, or a medical condition that requires treatment. Research suggests that most adults today weigh too much. The World Health Organization (WHO) says worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980. Some countries, including Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and England, have experienced a slowdown in obesity rates. However, larger increases were recorded in Ireland, Canada, and the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of U.S. adults (34.9 percent) are obese. Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit health advocacy organization, estimates that obesity-related illnesses cost the United States from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. The Canadian Obesity Center says one in four adult Canadians and one in 10 Canadian children are clinically obese. The percentage is rising.

If you’re in the “overweight” or “at risk” zones of the U.S. National Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Health Canada's Body Mass Index (BMI) chart, it indicates you probably are too heavy for your height and age. You have lots of company. Health officials are very concerned about weight problems among children. The number of overweight children in the United States and Canada has increased at an alarming rate. According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation in Canada, obesity rates in children have almost tripled in the last twenty-five years. Approximately 26 percent of Canadian children and teens ages 2 to 17 are currently overweight or obese. In the U.S., the CDC estimates that approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and teens ages 2 to 19 are obese. In 2010, President Barack Obama established the Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Its goal is to return the childhood obesity rate to 5 percent by 2030.

What Is a “Normal” Weight?

There are different shades of “normal,” “thin,” and “fat.” A muscular athlete might be 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, weigh 220 pounds (100 kg), and be considered normal or average in weight and build. A non-athlete who’s 6 feet tall and weighs 220 pounds, whose weight consists mainly of fat tissue rather than muscle tissue, is overweight. Weight should be considered in relation to such other factors as height, age, and rate of growth.

The first growth charts for determining appropriate weight levels came out in the 1970s. In 2000, the CDC, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), introduced more accurate charts. These charts reflected what has become known as the Body Mass Index, or BMI. BMI charts are formulated to help you determine whether you are at a healthy, unhealthy, or at-risk weight.

Generally, a BMI rating of 25 to 29 is considered overweight; people with a BMI score of 30 or above are considered obese. Defining obesity, though, isn’t a simple matter of calculating weight and height. For example, BMI interpretations vary slightly for those under age twenty because the body’s natural fat ratios change during normal growth. Average fat percentages also differ between young males and young females.

The BMI is a mathematical formula: your weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of your height (in meters). The measurements can easily be converted to pounds and inches. To quickly calculate your BMI in pounds and inches, use this formula:

  1. Compute the square of your height (multiply your height times itself) in inches.

  2. Multiply your weight in pounds by 703.

  3. Divide the weight result by the height result.

Sample results: If you are 5 feet (60 inches) tall and weigh 112 pounds, your BMI is approximately 22. Whether this is a low, average, or high weight depends on your age, sex, and other factors. A BMI of 23 or higher, for instance, indicates a weight problem for a girl at age 10. By the time she’s 16, however, the same BMI suggests no problem—in fact, at that age, she could register a BMI of 28 and be considered only “borderline” in terms of overweight risk. An average BMI for a child in the first grade is approximately 16. An average BMI for a high school senior is approximately 22.

Doctors chart the BMI in relation to your age. Different charts are used for young males and young females. If your BMI ranks in the ninety-fifth percentile or above, you’re considered overweight. If it falls between the eighty-fifth and ninety-fourth percentile, you’re said to be at risk of developing an excess weight problem.

The BMI is not a perfect tool for determining a person’s desirable weight. (Health officials have stopped using the term “ideal weight.”) Results may vary from child to child, for complex reasons. For example, the BMI does not take growth rate into account.

Growth charts, a BMI calculator, and explanatory information can be found at the Web site of the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/ bmi/childrens_BMI/about_childrens_BMI.htm.

Many experts believe mild levels of excess fat don’t notably endanger a person’s health. One study has suggested that a forty-five-year-old man at 20 percent above his “ideal weight” has a life expectancy only a few months shorter than “healthy” men his age. Moderately overweight women are believed to be less at risk than men.

Where excess weight is distributed around your body, however, could be a significant factor in how seriously your health is at risk. Although many females fret over unattractive figures caused by fatty thighs and hips, more dangerous is massive fat around the middle to upper body, surrounding the vital organs.

Separating Fat from Fat

A nagging problem with efforts to address the obesity problem has been incomplete and sometimes faulty information about what causes it. For example, after nutritionists cited saturated fat as a health culprit in the late 1900s, food companies began reducing saturated fat content in their products. In many cases, they substituted trans fat—which was soon pronounced to be more harmful than saturated fat.

Many people assume that all fat is bad. The reality is that a body needs a certain amount of fat to function. It’s a primary source of energy. It’s vital to cell composition and to your chemical makeup.

Trans fat, however, has been heavily criticized for its role in obesity. Scientists have found that excessive consumption of trans fat can build up cholesterol in the blood and lead to heart disease. Nutritionists suggest that trans fat and saturated fat should account for less than 10 percent of the calories you consume, but many Americans double that amount. Various packaged desserts, french fries, potato chips, greasy burgers, and pastries are high in trans fat. Fast food restaurants in particular have come under fire for the levels of trans fat contained in their fries.

Sweetened, carbonated soft drinks are another primary target in the anti-obesity war because they are high in nonessential sugar content. The average American drinks about twice as much soda today as in the 1980s.

Dietary Guidelines

MyPlate Daily Food PlanView Larger Image
The U.S. federal government’s MyPlate plan is a general guide to what kinds of foods (and how much of them) you should eat. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years. The USDA and HHS realized that the ideal amount of food intake differs depending on a person’s age, gender, and daily activities. In 2005, the USDA introduced MyPyramid, which included an interactive food guidance system and a personalized eating and exercise plan for each individual. The most recent dietary guidelines for 2010 were released in January 2011, which focus on helping Americans make healthier food choices and aims to combat the obesity epidemic. In June 2011, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama announced a new, updated way of helping Americans make good food choices. This new plan is called MyPlate and it is based on the 2010 dietary guidelines report.

The MyPlate plan replaces the MyPyramid food guide. The new MyPlate graphic shows a familiar mealtime image of a drinking glass and a plate separated into four different colored sections—an easy-to-understand visual that shows how much of each food group you should be eating. Half of the plate is filled with fruits and vegetables. The meats and beans category from MyPyramid has been changed to proteins and includes legumes, nuts, fish, and poultry. The sweets, fats, and oils category from MyPyramid has been removed.

One feature that remains the same is that MyPlate offers interactive tools. Go to www.ChooseMyPlate.gov and you can get a personalized Daily Food Plan specifically for your height, weight, and age. The ChooseMyPlate Web site also provides menus and exercise advice. If you register with the site, you can keep track of your long-term calorie consumption and exercise patterns. In creating the interactive MyPlate plan, the USDA is committed to combating the obesity epidemic in the United States.

Some experts believe that the MyPlate plan might be improved. For now, though, it is a valuable guide for weight management.

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Article Citation:

Harmon, Daniel. "Obesity." Teen Health and Wellness. Rosen, 2014. Web. 28 July. 2014. <http://www.teenhealthandwellness.com/article/249/obesity>.