BMI figures highlight America's obesity danger -- but what will we do about it?

Add a few more digits to that data bank in your brain that stores your phone number, your ATM personal identification number, your Social Security number and your spouse's birth date.

Now, you also need to know your body mass index -- or BMI.

For the uninitiated, your BMI is the key indicator of whether you are plagued by the latest health threat to descend upon America. If your particular digit rises above 25, you're overweight. And if it's higher than 30 -- God forbid -- you're obese.

This number is important all of a sudden because our government has determined that Americans are eating themselves to death at an alarming rate. Combined with a lack of exercise, overeating killed 400,000 people in the year 2000, a 33 percent jump from 10 years before.

Obesity now is the nation's second-leading cause of death and threatens to overtake smoking for the No. 1 spot, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

"Our poor eating habits are literally killing us," said Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

He's encouraging Americans to eat a little less and exercise a little more.

You can start with a simple exercise to determine your BMI. Here's the equation: Divide your weight by your height, squared. And here's the catch: You have to do it metrically. (For the mathematically challenged, several Web sites, such as the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, offer BMI calculators).

Once, we could tell if we were fat just by looking at the scale. Now, we need a calculator. p>

America is getting fatter for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Americans eat too much.

"If people want to be smaller, they need to eat smaller amounts," food and health expert Marion Nestle told the New York Times.

McDonald's, which has come to symbolize the supersizing of America with its oversized portions of high-fat, high-calorie offerings, has announced it will help us toward that goal by discontinuing its "Supersize" french fries and soft drinks by the end of this year.

But don't despair. The Times notes that while you won't find the 7-ounce, 610-calorie "Supersize" fries on the menu, the fast-food chain still will sell you a 6-ounce, 540-calorie version. And though 42-ounce soft drinks will be gone, there's still a 32-ouncer for the really thirsty.

Studies have shown that in addition to taking in too many calories, Americans also are doing less to take them off. Fewer kids walk or bike to school. More adults spend the day sitting in front of computers. The automobile has become the transportation choice for even short trips.

Secretary Thompson said no one need go to "extremes," such as joining a gym or going on a diet. He suggested "small steps," such as "taking the stairs instead of an elevator or snacking on fruits and vegetables."

This he called the beginning of a campaign that will "tackle America's weight issues as aggressively as we are addressing smoking and tobacco."

Well, maybe. While 40 years of health warnings about smoking have made a dent, cigarettes remain the No. 1 cause of preventable death in this country. It's no great comfort to know that the government is going to be just as tough on fat as it is on tobacco.

The report on obesity said the disease costs society at least $117 billion a year, mostly in medical costs and lost productivity. If government really wanted to "aggressively" target Americans' poor eating habits, it might consider a cheeseburger tax or a french fry fee to recover some of that money.

Or maybe a tax credit for carless commuters.

Chris Coursey writes for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Discuss This Article