Rail-thin, fashionably thin, skinny, lithe, or slender – these adjectives describe how many girls and women would like to see themselves. We, as women (and men), never want to think of ourselves as fat – even if the mirror somehow tells us otherwise. In fact, our desire to be thin, or to be considered thin, has often led us to engage in unhealthy eating behavior. Not everyone who desires to lose a few pounds, however, is guilty of obsessing over weight. It’s just that the ideal body weight and image for women, especially, is unrealistically portrayed in media, which makes it difficult for us to reconcile the reality of what we are with what we think we should be. That, coupled with underlying psychological issues and/or genetic factors, may put us at risk for an eating disorder.
Looking at statistics on obesity and overweight populations in the U.S., however, it is fairly easy to see that perception doesn’t jive with reality.
Growing Obesity Levels
Statistics from the National Health Interview Survey, 1997-March 2009, show that in early 2009, 27.2 percent of U.S. adults aged 20 and older were obese. While this is not statistically different from the 27.6 percent figure from 2008, it is a dramatic increase from 19.4 percent in 1997. It appears that we, as a nation, are becoming unhealthier with respect to weight gain than weight loss.
The 2007 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that among U.S. high school students, 13 percent were obese (greater than 95th percentile for body mass index, by age and sex, based on reference data).
Results from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), as published in the National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicate that an estimated 32.8 percent of U.S. adults 20 years and older are overweight, 34.3 percent are obese, and 5.9 percent are extremely obese. National health objectives for 2010, according to the report, are to reduce the prevalence of obesity among adults to less than 15 percent. The NHANES data suggest an increase in obesity from the late 1980s to December 2008 from 23 percent (1988-94) to approximately 34 percent (2008).
CDC statistics on U.S. obesity and overweight (2005-2006) show that:
- 67 percent of noninstitutionalized adults aged 20 years and older are overweight or obese
- 34 percent of noninstitutionalized adults aged 20 years and older are obese
- 18 percent of adolescents age 12 to 19 years are overweight
- 15 percent of children age 6 to 11 years are overweight
- 11 percent of children age 2 to 5 are overweight
Furthermore, CDC data collected from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) shows that there’s been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States over the past 20 years. In 2008, only Colorado had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent. Thirty-two states had a prevalence of 25 percent or greater, and six states (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) had a prevalence of 30 percent or more. Analyzing the data by race and ethnicity, the results show that blacks have a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity, and Hispanics have a 21 percent higher prevalence of obesity, compared with whites.
How to Moderate Weight without Unhealthy Behaviors
If the pendulum has swung from an obsession to be thin to a reality of overweight and obesity, and with the goal to reduce U.S. obesity levels to less than 15 percent in 2010, how can this goal be accomplished without returning to a focus on weight obsession? The answer is both simple and complicated.
The simple answer is to concentrate on healthy balance. The more complicated answer involves consideration and discussion of various strategies to implement.
The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General offers the following tips for what we can do:
- Be physically active – Physical activity contributes to weight loss, especially when combined with calorie reduction.
- Initiate physical activity slowly – and build intensity gradually.
- Add moderate amounts of activity – to five or more times per week in your schedule.
- Participate in activities you enjoy – and those that fit into your daily schedule.
- Balance food intake and activity – Calculate the amount of calories and the equivalent of exercise (such as one small chocolate chip cookie of 50 calories is equivalent to a brisk 10 minute walk).
Healthy weight loss advice from the Office of the Surgeon General includes:
- Aim for a healthy body weight – Determine your body mass index (BMI). If you are overweight or obese, losing 10 percent of your body weight can improve your health. If you do need to lose weight, do so safely – at a rate of ½ to 2 pounds per week.
- Be active – Physical activity balances calories you consume. Adults should aim for 30 minutes of physical exercise per day, while children should aim for 60 minutes daily. Limit watching television to 2 hours per day.
- Eat well – Use sensible portion sizes – no more supersize meals! Follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Overweight and Obesity: Vision for the Future
The Office of the Surgeon General lists 15 national priorities to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity in the United States:
We must work together to:
- Change the perception of overweight and obesity. Health should be the primary concern, and not appearance.
- Educate expectant parents about the benefits of breastfeeding.
- Educate health care providers and health profession students in the prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity across lifespan.
- Provide educational materials to schools and communities on healthy eating habits and regular physical activity. Emphasize the consumer’s role in making wise choices with respect to food and physical activity.
- Ensure daily, quality physical education in all school grades.
- Reduce time watching television and all sedentary activities.
- Build physical activity into routines and playtime for all children and adults for most days of the week.
- Create opportunities at worksites for physical activity for employees.
- Make community facilities available and accessible for physical activity for all individuals, including the elderly.
- Promote healthier food choices, including at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
- Ensure schools provide healthy foods and beverages on campuses and at school events.
- Create mechanisms to provide for reimbursement for prevention and treatment of obesity and overweight.
Research and Evaluation
- Increase research on the behavioral and environmental causes of obesity and overweight.
- Increase research and evaluations on prevention and treatment interventions for obesity and overweight and disseminate guidelines on best practices.
- Increase research on disparities in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among age, gender, ethnic and racial, and socioeconomic age groups and use this information to identify effective and appropriate interventions.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Translate all this into our everyday lives and we still need to do more to counter the self-perception of unsatisfactory body image. Whether or not we are overweight, how we see ourselves has as much to do – or more – with how closely we align to healthy weight guidelines. While it does take time to change our self-perceptions, here are some tips that may counter that image we see in the mirror.
- If we see snug-fitting clothing, or we’re uncomfortable in our normal attire, perhaps it’s time to adjust our daily routine to increase physical activity and cut down on caloric intake.
- Perhaps it’s a good idea to investigate more healthy ways to prepare and serve food to the family.
- Promote eating fresh fruits and vegetables and incorporate them into daily meals – including school lunches.
- Develop an interest in a hobby, especially one that involves physical activity.
- Search for ways to interact socially that involve physical exertion, such as walking, hiking, swimming or sports.
- Get rid of all junk food in the house, in the car, and at the office (in your desk or elsewhere readily available).
- Pack nutritious snacks (a bag of carrots, celery, a few walnuts) in your purse or bag so that you have something healthy to eat when hunger pangs strike – instead of resorting to fast food or empty calories.
- Drink more water. It helps flush our systems, hydrates our body, and removes toxins.
- Limit intake of salt, sugar, and fine-grained products. By ditching a single 12-ounce can of soda (about 160 calories) a day can result in a weight loss of approximately 16 pounds. Looking at it another way, if you drink one of these every day, you’ll likely gain 16 pounds over the course of a year.
- Chew food slowly. Don’t chomp it without thinking or swallow chunks without completely chewing them. This only increases indigestion, contributes to irritable bowel syndrome, upset stomach and other irritations.
- Don’t just eat out of habit. Listen to your body. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat, or eat much smaller portions.
- Eat a wide variety of foods. This can help maintain interest in eating healthy as well as foster an appreciation for the right kinds of foods.
- Cut down on portion size. Don’t fill your plate. And never feel that you have to completely finish eating everything on your plate. It’s not necessary to belong to the “clean plate club.” Gradually decrease the portion size to the point where you feel comfortable eating what you put on your plate. If you’re still hungry, you can always add a bit more. Just don’t overdo it.
- Eat early, rather than late. Your body needs time to digest before you head off to bed. Also, eating smaller meals more frequently is better than eating a lot at a single sitting.
- Make mealtime peaceful. Turn off the television while you are eating. Avoid arguments or jumping on someone for failure to attend to tasks. Mealtime should be pleasant and relaxing.
- Buy and eat locally-grown food. Go to the local farmer’s market or markets that sell organic foods. These are the freshest foods, certified organic or of a very high quality.
What is the New Ideal Body Type?
There really isn’t one single ideal body type. In contrast to previous images portrayed by the media, today’s advertisements, personalities on TV and in the movies, and photographs of celebrities, political figures and everyday people in the magazines are more realistic. To be sure, there are still tabloid stories about the anorectic starlet, the 1,000-pound man and everything in between. But, as a general rule, there’s more of a concerted effort on the part of the media to adhere to sensible dietary
An action brief from the Strategic Alliance suggests that the media has great potential to “shape people’s perceptions of nutrition and physical activity issues.” It recommends that characters in TV and movies model healthy behaviors, that stories related to obesity, nutrition and physical activity include an environmental and policy perspective in addition to highlighting individual responsibility, and that stories shift focus away from obesity and weight loss toward healthier eating and activity.
All things considered, today when we see a photograph of an emaciated individual, whether that person is a Hollywood star or a homemaker, the tendency isn’t to think how wonderful it is that they’re so thin. Instead, it’s more likely that we recognize the individual is suffering from a distorted self-image, an eating disorder, physical and/or psychological problem, or a combination. The campaigns toward healthy eating guidelines and balancing nutrition and physical activity seem to be having a positive effect. In short, we may at last be over our obsession to be thin.