Another report on the increase in obesity has thrown yet another red flag for an epidemic health problem in need of a solution.
And the solution may come in recognizing that obesity may be connected to the same kind of brain chemistry caused by drug addiction, rather than attributing it to a simple lack of willpower.
Last week’s report by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation in Indianapolis shows that one in three Indiana residents are obese, more than two in three are overweight or obese and the state’s obesity rate is the 12th highest in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, being overweight or obese is weighing more than what is considered healthy for a given height. The measure of that is body mass index. An adult with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.
And the problem has increased significantly as Indiana’s obesity rate has risen from 20 percent in 1995 to 34 percent in 2017.
Not only is obesity affecting the health of Hoosiers, the Fairbanks report says it has cost the state $8.5 billion a year in lost productivity, economic output and added health care costs.
And while the Fairbanks Foundation report focuses on Indiana and Marion County, its data also mirrors the annual Robert Wood Johnson Foundation national report last fall.
The Fairbanks report says the causes of obesity are poor diet and lack of physical activity. In Indiana, it reports, 89 percent of adults do not eat the recommended amount of fruit (2 cups daily), and 91 percent do not eat the recommended amount of vegetables (2-3 cups daily). Eighty-three percent of Hoosier adults do not meet the national guideline of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week
Claire Fiddian-Green, president and CEO of the Fairbanks Foundation, told Indianapolis’ WFYI-TV that “where we live, work and play” helps drive obesity and that data highlights how access to healthy food and other factors can influence healthy weight.
Dr. Deborah McMahan, the Allen County Health Department commissioner, told us in an email this week, “While this is also a national trend, we need to seriously begin to look at how we can impact this very expensive public health issue and treat obesity as a complex medical and mental health issue like we do addiction.
“Yes,” she emphasized, “I said addiction.”
She referred to an annual TEDMED conference talk by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Nora Volkow who discussed using insights from her research on drug addiction and brain chemistry to better understand the obesity epidemic. McMahan said Dr. Volkow “does a great job explaining the connection between addiction and obesity.”
Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, found that compulsive drug-taking behavior seemed remarkably similar to the inability of some to control what they eat. She also found that PET scan images of living brains showed similarities in the brain chemistry behind these two stigmatized problems.
“Dismissal of addiction and obesity as just problems of self-control ignores the fact that for us to be able to exert self-control would require the proper function of the areas in our brains that regulate our behaviors,” Volkow said. “It’s like driving a car without brakes. No matter how much you want to stop, you will not be able to do it.”
Dr. McMahan said she believes more tools are needed to deal with this issue. “We need to better understand the complexity of obesity as a physiologic process in the brain versus just an issue of willpower if we want to be successful.”