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MRC News

Published on February 15, 2002
Collin Johnson
Health and Research News Service

JACKSON, Miss.—Southerners—and Mississippians in particular—love to eat. But if not controlled or prevented, obesity can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mississippians have the highest occurrence of obesity in the U.S.

"It’s a very real and very serious problem," say Dean Morrison, a licensed and registered dietician at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. Morrison and other dieticians at the Jackson hospital see more than 2,000 patients each year who suffer serious conditions as a result of their weight.

Nationally, about 300,000 deaths a year are associated with obesity and diabetics also face other problems including amputation. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates the total direct and indirect costs attributed to obesity amounted to $117 billion in the year 2000.

"Many of our stroke patients have a problem with their weight, but it’s not just them," Morrison said. "Everyone who is obese has a much higher probability of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease."

Obesity has risen at an epidemic rate over the last 20 years, according to the CDC. They define obesity as an excessively high amount of body fat or loose tissue in relation to lean body mass. Excessive fat can be found in different places on the body, but upper and central body fat can be more dangerous and lead to heart problems. To determine obesity, CDC researchers calculate the body-mass index—a height-weight ratio. A BMI of at least 30 is considered obese and a 25 is considered overweight.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher called on Americans to prevent and decrease obesity. "Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," he said.

There’s no one particular cause for obesity, Morrison says. "There are a lot of factors, but mainly we see peer pressure and cultural factors—such as socioeconomic status—contributing." In Mississippi where poverty is also an issue, people eat on a budget, he said. "And when you’re eating for economic reasons, you’re not necessarily eating for health reasons. Less expensive food is often less healthy than other choices."

Also, people are eating out more than staying home and cooking, Morrison says. Food in restaurants generally has more fat than a home-cooked meal. Emotional problems can also contribute to weight gain.

"You’re not supposed to eat just because you’re depressed," Morrison said. "You should only eat when you have a physiological need to eat. That’s why we get hungry."

But it’s the sedentary lifestyles that are most to blame, Morrison says. "Changing that has to begin at an early age. We need to teach our children the importance of active lifestyles and to only eat when they’re hungry and not to overeat. "The best way to treat obesity is to prevent it in the first place."

Morrison says there are several ways to combat weight gain:

  • Engage in regular exercise.
  • Reduce time spent watching TV and other sedentary behaviors. Take a walk.
  • Eat only when you’re hungry and only eat until you’re satisfied, not beyond.
  • Learn more about the calorie content of food and how many calories you burn each day.
  • Avoid fad diets and make a life-long commitment to eating right.

“Ninety percent of the people who lose weight, gain it back," he said. "The 10 percent who keep it off exercise and have changed their lifestyle." Changing the lifestyles of adults who have lived the same way for years is another matter entirely, admits Morrison.

"You can’t force someone to change. They have to do it for themselves and for their families," he said. "It really boils down to ‘how much longer do you want to live?’ and ‘how much enjoyment do you want to get out of those years?’ It’s really that simple."