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The ‘Diabesity’ Epidemic

By Harvey B. Lefton, MD

As the summer vacation season ends and we all head back to work, it is time to look forward and re-dedicate ourselves to our patients.  We need to focus on those areas of practice where we can make a real difference.  The major killers of our patients include cancer, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.  A root cause of these devastating illnesses is the epidemic of obesity and diabetes or “diabesity” that pervades our society.

Over 70% of adult Americans are overweight and more than 1 in 3 children are obese.  We have become a nation with a sedentary lifestyle.  Even children who once got physical activity from sports spend more time on the internet or playing video games.  As we discover more ways to reduce work and to have more free time, this free time is not spent in physical activity but in sedentary pursuits.

While watching television, the American consumer is bombarded with ads for high calorie foods.  Most contain empty calories.  We have become a nation of supersizers and now get 32 oz 1,000 calorie soft drinks to accompany our high cholesterol fast foods.  To make matters worse, these fast food restaurants are often in poor neighborhoods that lack food markets with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Morgan Spurlock, in his documentary Supersize Me, gained 25 pounds and increased his body mass 13% by eating all his meals at McDonalds for one month.  He developed hyperlipidemia, fatty liver, depression and mood swings.  He also developed sexual dysfunction.  He required nine months to return to his baseline weight.  While this is an extreme example, it highlights the intrinsic harm in this type of diet.  The movie showed even salads soaked with high calorie dressing and cheese are not a healthy alternatives to burgers and fries.  After the movie, McDonald’s stopped their supersizing policy and they now offer a “healthier” menu.

Americans raised on a daily diet of TV commercials showing high calorie, high salt snack foods have succumbed to the insidious marketing that now fills the airwaves much like the tobacco commercials of the mid part of the 20th century.

As physicians we need to recognize we face an expanding epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the country.  As protectors of our patients’ health, we must acknowledge that many of the chronic illnesses we treat are a result of poor nutrition and lack of physical exercise.  It is not enough to prescribe medicine for hypertension, diabetes, fatty liver and heart disease.  We must take the lead in counseling children and adults in good nutrition and active lifestyles.  While we may not agree with our government legislating the size of the sodas we drink, we need to be the leaders in the battle for good nutritional education and health.

Preventive medicine will bear more rewards if we can educate our youth in good eating habits and the value of exercise. Health care cost reduction will be an additional benefit of this effort as we enter the era of managed care for all Americans.


Harvey B. Lefton, MD, is President of the Philadelphia County Medical Society (www.philamedsoc.org).



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