The world's serious problems include nuclear arms issues, terrorism, lack of water, AIDS and overpopulation. Probably, most people would not remotely suspect that overweight and obesity should also be on any list of major concerns. Likely, we'd put it on a list of "Western world problems," you know, "rich peoples' troubles." But we would be wrong!
How serious is the problem? "The World Health Organization [WHO] has said obesity is the biggest unrecognized health problem in the world" ("Obesity a World-Wide Hazard," BBC, Dec. 22, 2000, emphasis added throughout).
The same release estimated that more than 75 percent of women over 30 are now overweight "...in countries as diverse as Barbados, Egypt, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. Estimates are similar for men, with over 75 per cent now overweight in...Argentina, Germany, Kuwait, New Zealand, Samoa, and the United Kingdom."
Would you think that India has this problem? It does. With rising incomes, people are choosing diets of fast foods (including pizza and burgers). Nearly half of its 1.1 billion people are under 25, and they increasingly work at jobs that do not require physical labor. Now 35 million have diabetes, and the WHO estimates that will double in only 25 years.
Add Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Latin America and even Russia and China to the list of nations plagued with overweight and obesity.
AIDS, commonly known as "the slims disease" in Africa, is causing an unusual backlash there. People seek to put on weight in order to demonstrate that they do not have AIDS, causing them to suffer other health problems that can be just as deadly.
The cost in the United States alone of dealing with health issues caused by overweight and obesity is over $130 billion dollars a year. The costs will only rise, greatly burdening the health-care system.
The WHO puts the worldwide total of overweight people at more than 1 billion, and the problem is increasing so fast that the figure will be 1.5 billion in less than 10 years.
"The sheer magnitude of the...problem is staggering," warned Catherine Le-Galès Camus, WHO assistant director of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health in a UN News Service release (Sept. 22, 2005).
Verifying that this is not a Western or wealthy nation problem exclusively, she added, "The rapid increase of overweight and obesity in many low-and middle-income countries foretells an overwhelming chronic disease burden in these countries in the next 10 to 20 years, if action is not taken now."
Increasingly a problem of children
Health issues related to blood sugar used to be mainly problems of senior citizens, but not any longer. Indeed, the WHO estimated in 2004 that one in 10 schoolchildren worldwide is overweight. Type 2 diabetes was unheard of in children only 20 years ago, but now it is common and increasing rapidly.
"Research indicates that in some parts of Africa, fatness and obesity afflicts more children than malnutrition does—sometimes four times as many" ("Obesity Statistics of Obese Children," www.annecollins.com).
The same article reports a greater than 25 percent overweight or obesity rate in 4-year-olds in Egypt. In Zambia and Morocco's 4-year-olds, the rate is 15 to 20 percent. More than a quarter of the 4- to 10-year-olds in Chile, Peru and Mexico are overweight or obese. Nearly 13 percent of all American children are.
"Childhood obesity is like a massive tsunami headed toward the United States," warns David Ludwig, pediatric endocrinologist and director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital in Boston (Nanci Hellmich, "Obesity Threatens Life Expectancy," USA Today, March 16, 2005). Overweight and obesity could actually cause the life expectancy in the United States to head downward for the first time since the government began to keep statistics in 1900!
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly advocates changing U.S. school policies to prevent obesity among children and teens. The CDC publishes a brochure that lays out a 10-point strategy, encompassing staff and students alike, urging them to eat better and to become more active. It notes, "Since 1980, the percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has doubled, and the percentage of overweight adolescents ages 12 to 19 has tripled."
Throughout the world, more people are moving from the farm to the city. By doing this they decrease their activity levels and at the same time change their diets to fewer fruits, vegetables, grains and less lean meat but more fats and simple carbohydrates.
How the body processes sugar
Our bodies break down all carbohydrates into simple glucose, which the bloodstream carries to the muscle and fat cells to burn or to store for future energy needs.
Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, accompanies the glucose and helps the cells process it. The insulin attaches to receptors in the cell wall, and its presence activates other receptors to absorb the glucose. In a healthy person, the pancreas releases the right amount of insulin needed to process whatever food he consumes. Without insulin, a person could literally starve, even though he is eating plenty of food, because his body wouldn't be able to put it to use.
The type of food we eat makes a difference in insulin output too. "Fast foods" typically demand rapid production of more insulin, which is followed by a "crash" of blood glucose levels a few hours later, causing a sensation of weakness and hunger.
Think of a fire fueled by handfuls of dry grass. The grass burns quickly, causing a sudden flash of energy output, but followed by a rapid reduction in light or heat. Contrast that with a chunk of wood that burns more slowly and puts out energy for a longer period.
Continuing the analogy, the rapid-burning fuels include refined carbohydrates, such as bagels, white bread, white rice, regular pasta, sodas and sweets. Starchy vegetables, including potatoes, work in a similar way. Diets with much of these types of food are terribly unhealthy, stressing the body and encouraging overeating.
Good eating is not a matter of simply cutting out these foods, but rather of consuming a balanced diet. The clear trend in the developed and developing world alike is toward diets loaded with these potentially harmful foods. Combined with jobs and lifestyles that are ever less active, we see the result in the alarming worldwide weight crisis.
In overweight or inactive people, cells do not respond quickly or efficiently to insulin's presence. This results in the pancreas pumping out more insulin to compensate. Eventually, the pancreas is overworked and cannot supply enough insulin. When the cells aren't taking the glucose from the bloodstream, the effect is a rise in blood sugar.
Health risks to the overweight
What problems occur when the blood has too much sugar in it? The body gains weight. Being overweight triggers a host of serious problems, including:
• Type 2 diabetes.
• Heart disease and stroke.
• Cancer (esophagus, colon, kidney, uterus and breast).
• Sleep apnea.
• Gallbladder disease.
• Fatty liver disease (including cirrhosis).
The good news is that you can lower your health risk by losing as little as 10 to 20 pounds.
Conversely, it takes only 20 to 30 extra pounds to cause a significant loss in the body's ability to use insulin properly. Doctors are warning people to take immediate action when their blood sugar count exceeds 100 to stave off these health problems and to extend their lives.
Glorify God in your body
God instructs us on eating and exercise habits. We are to take responsibility for keeping our bodies as healthy as possible, respecting the fact that God actually holds us accountable for doing so.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's." That is, we are not free to do whatever we please with our health!
Become attuned to your eating and your activity habits. When hunger strikes, is it because you need food or because your body isn't using food properly? Too often, it's the latter.
Parents, feed your children the foods that their bodies will use, rather than "fast foods" that the body burns quickly. And, get your children active! You will enrich and perhaps even save their lives. For every two hours per day in front of the TV, the risk of developing diabetes goes up 14 percent, writes Hallie Levine in Redbook ("Diabetes Crisis: Are You Next?" http://redbook.ivillage.com).
Exercise provides obvious benefits of burning off the calories we take in, and it is especially important in an increasingly inactive lifestyle. A lesser-known benefit is that exercise increases the cells' sensitivity to insulin, triggering the consequent processing of blood sugar.
We have some excellent material that can help you. Request or download our free booklet Making Life Work from www.wnponline.org and see the article from our sister publication, The Good News, titled, "Follow a Healthy—and Biblical—Diet" at www.gnmagazine.org/issues/gn43/biblicaldiet.htm. WNP