Battle of the Bulge

By Angela Loiacono

This is the first part of a three-day series on the American obesity pandemic.

Molly Schneider, 25, and Cindy Abner, 42, have lives that are worlds apart. But like so many other Americans, obesity has directly impacted the way in which they live, have lived and will live for the rest of their lives.

Globesity, the overwhelming prevalence of global obesity, has become a serious health concern for billions of people across the world. It increases the risk for a long list of health problems and directly contributes to both cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Dr. J. Lee Beverly, associate professor of nutrition at the University. “It’s actually been recognized for more than a decade as a problem.”

Over one billion people are overweight globally. Thirty percent of U.S. adults 20-years-old and over, about 60 million people, are obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Based on the most recent statistics collected in 2002, over 1,850,000 adults in Illinois were obese. Over 24,000 adults in Champaign County were considered obese as well, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“I think it’s definitely a big problem; no pun intended,” said Kristina Adams, registered dietician at Carle Hospital. “Statistically over the years, there has been a rise in the number of people who are obese, and their weight has continued to rise over the years, as well as the health problems that correlate with carrying the extra weight.”

Obesity is an extremely complex disease that has several factors contributing to its prevalence. It is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the American Obesity Association. Genetics, society and lifestyle are a few of the things that affect obesity.

“One third of the population is at a very high risk in this country,” said Kathy Timm, fitness director at FitClub in Springfield.

The physical effects of obesity are widespread and common among those with extra weight. About 400,000 adults in the United States die each year due to obesity-related illnesses, according to the Center for Obesity Related Illness. In fact, the health problems associated with obesity are what make it such a serious condition.

Obesity increases the risk for many diseases and health conditions including Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems and some cancers, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I was really concerned that I could have heart disease or any number of other things,” said Abner.

Abner suffered from high blood pressure, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, back pain and a heel spur – all as a result of her extra weight. Many of these conditions might have improved or completely disappeared with exercise and proper nutrition.

“It’s a combination of factors,” said Beverly. “You add all the things up and it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

The health consequences of obesity range from premature death to serious chronic conditions that might reduce overall quality of life, according to the International Association for the Study of Obesity.

Type II diabetes is one of the most prominent health conditions associated with obesity. Americans might be eating themselves into a diabetes epidemic, according to the results from a Center for Disease Control report. It is estimated that the number of people with obesity-related diabetes is expected to double to 300 million between 1998 and 2025, according to the International Association for the Study of Obesity.

“Any one of the chronic diseases, there seems to be an obesity link,” said Dr. Robert Reber, associate professor of nutrition at the University.

Type II diabetes usually appears in the body after the age of 40. The body’s cells fail to take glucose from the blood. Tissues then waste away as the cells consume their own proteins, because they can’t consume glucose.

“As an individual becomes obese, their fat cells become larger and larger,” said Dr. Donald Layman, professor of nutrition at the University. “As they become larger, they become less sensitive to insulin, and so insulin loses its function.”

Both Abner and Schneider suffer from some form of insulin resistance or diabetes as a direct result of their weight.

“The doctor told me that if I didn’t lose the weight after I had the baby, I would definitely develop adult Type II diabetes,” said Abner.

If obesity and diabetes continue to escalate, life expectancy could be reduced in the future.

“As soon as they increase their weight, they tend to turn Type II diabetic,” said Adams. “It’s all interrelated to the extra weight that puts stress on the body.”

As much as 80 percent of Type II diabetes is linked to obesity, and at least half of all diabetes cases could be eliminated with weight loss, according to the Defeat Diabetes Foundation.

Being overweight and obese are also large risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death and accounts for over 17 million deaths each year, according to The World Health Organization.

Schneider suffered a stroke at the age of 22 as a result of her excessive weight and a heart defect she was born with. Three days before she was scheduled to have Gastric Bypass surgery in order to combat her obesity, Schneider, at 311 pounds, was hospitalized with the stroke and had open-heart surgery.

Several studies have found that a 10 to 15 percent decrease in weight has a significant impact on lowering the effects and risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

“The more weight you carry around, the more stress you put on your heart,” said Adams. “You only get so many beats per lifetime, and when you cause your heart to work harder and speed up, you use up those beats.”