Maybe you've noticed it when you watch TV shows and movies from a few decades ago. Or when you look at old photographs. Or when you go to a public beach or swimming pool. If you think people are a lot fatter today, you're right.
The average American is 15 pounds heavier than his or her 1990 counterpart, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported recently. And adults are 24 pounds heavier than when John F. Kennedy was president.
Obesity — a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more — is the new normal in America. BMI is a measurement of body fat using weight in relation to height. Overweight is defined as a BMI of 25 to 29.
"We know that 75 percent of the population are above ideal weight, and 35 percent are in an obese category," says Dr. Melissa DeLong, an internist and medical director at Evergreen Healthcare in Baltimore. "There is not a day that goes by where the vast majority of our office visits don't address obesity."
According to the CDC, causes stem from our modern lifestyle: physical inactivity, unhealthy food choices, persuasiveness of food marketing, and medication use. Poverty and genetics also are factors.
"Obesity is a serious concern because it is associated with poorer mental health outcomes, reduced quality of life and the leading causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide," the CDC states. Obesity also causes other complications such as sleep apnea and arthritis.
According to a 2013 study by Columbia University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 1 in 5 deaths in America are obesity-related. And a 2008 CDC report estimated that the effects of obesity carried a healthcare cost of $147 billion. Since then, those healthcare costs are rising.
Though obesity is now considered a chronic disease, experts say it's curable and preventable. Studies show that many people are more successful at losing weight and keeping it off when they have the support of health professionals, family and friends.
"It is really hard for people to lose weight, but awareness is the first step," Dr. DeLong says. "For instance, it has been proven that people who weigh themselves daily have less weight gain than those who never do."
Some Baltimore-area health organizations and wellness centers, such as Evergreen Health and Nava Health & Vitality Center, have coaches who help people change their eating habits and lose weight.
Ana Goldseker, director of nutrition at Nava, encourages people to view their weight as it relates to their entire lifestyle. "We look at the causes of the obesity and try to address those first," she says.
Nava deliberately avoids restrictive diets that often cause people to boomerang to an unhealthy weight, Goldseker says.
Rather, she recommends eating a mostly plant-based diet. "If you can eliminate gluten and dairy and sugar, all the better. "I've never seen a person say they didn't feel better after doing so, whether it's weight problems, gut problems, skin problems, or blood sugar problems," she says.
She also offers this advice: Most of your food should not have labels. Your grocery cart should be 85 percent produce. Boxed or canned items should have no more than five ingredients.
As the owner of her own nutritional consulting business, Mindful Nutrition, Goldseker has written two cookbooks to help people transition to more natural cooking and eating.
Since more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, Goldseker advises families to make diet and lifestyle changes together, for it is the parents who are buying the food in the first place, packing the lunches and deciding whether to serve a home-cooked meal.
"I need to work with the family as a whole," Goldseker says.
If your doctor has been telling you to lose weight for a while, it's time to listen before it's too late, Dr. DeLong warns. "It's heartbreaking when patients come to me desperate when things have gone wrong — such as losing their eyesight or sexual function due to diabetes — and there is nothing I can do for them," she adds.
Dr. DeLong offers these sensible tips for preventing and even reversing obesity.
Eliminate sugary drinks.
Use a tracking tool to log what you eat and drink.
Weigh yourself daily.
Cook and eat at home.
Pack a lunch.
Shop the “outer aisles” of the supermarket (meaning choose fresh food over processed).
Take advantage of any health professionals available to assist you.