If you think America's obesity epidemic will pass you by because you are young and fit now, think again. In the past 30 years, the portion of the population that is obese has risen from 15 percent to 33 percent. Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that more than 42 percent of people will be obese by 2030 – not just overweight, but clinically obese, with a body mass index of more than 30. (A healthy BMI for men is around 19 or 20.) And scientists can only speculate about the percentage of people who will be overweight.
This new statistic, while frightening, isn't a surprise to obesity experts who have watched and forecasted America's growing levels of fatness for decades. And now experts are scrambling to understand why. Most blame the epidemic on a variety of factors that can include everything from more chemicals in personal-care products, furniture, and food to the lack of sidewalks on city streets and a proliferation of elevators in buildings. Among many leading authorities, a contentious debate exists over whether it's the calories or the carbs in food that cause people, including those who work out every day, to pack on the pounds. Here, we examine five different perspectives from some of the country's leading obesity experts.
Foods are made to be addictive.
Dr. David Kessler
Physician, former medical-school dean, and former commissioner of the FDA
Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the FDA, already knows people eat too much – he wants to understand why. As a self-described fat kid who has battled weight problems his whole life, Kessler admits he can't stop eating chocolate-chip cookies. "If it were just calories in-calories out, you wouldn't have that kind of conditioned, driven behavior."
Kessler spent years analyzing neurochemistry research and doing his own fieldwork, like Dumpster-diving in a Chili's parking lot to recover discarded food cartons, to conclude: "What we've done is taken fat, sugar, and salt, and layered and loaded them into our food, put them on every corner, made them socially acceptable to eat at any time, and added advertising. We're living in a food carnival. What did we think was going to happen?" He accuses the food industry of creating steroidally flavorful foods that have hijacked the pleasure circuits of our brains, causing us to become addicted to them and to overeat. He cites studies that show how the brain's emotional core, the amygdala, lights up longer and brighter in response to food in people with overeating issues.
Credit: David Marsden / Getty Images
Kessler believes fast-food restaurants should have to identify ingredients in meals the same way packaged foods do on nutrition labels. He supports New York City's efforts to limit the size of sugared drinks. But he also believes people need to learn to avoid the foods that cause them to overeat. He says he's trained himself, for example, to change his route through the airport so he doesn't walk past tempting foods.