Americans are very competitive, always have been. We are obsessed with winning, being number one, coming out on top. And in many ways, we are number one.
We're the richest country in the world. We have a military that is second to none. Heck, we even dominate most sports, except of course for the one that nearly every country in the world cares about except us -- men's soccer.
Now it seems that we're not content to be the biggest, baddest country on the planet, we as individuals are well on our way to outgrowing the rest of the world, too. Literally. According to scientists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 31 percent of Americans are now identified as being obese (at least 30 pounds above what is considered a healthy body weight.)
Perhaps even more alarming are the statistics announced last week by the Rand Corp. that show that the number of people who fall into the extremely obese category (at least 100 pounds over a healthy weight) has increased from 1 in 200 in 1986 to 1 in 50 in 2000. If we keep packing on pounds at that rate, virtually every American would be in the extremely obese category by 2040.
It's no mystery how this has happened. We have plenty of food, and we have a taste for the high-fat, low-nutrition treats that crowd grocery store shelves and take up most of the space on restaurant menus. (One thing Americans aren't number one at is resisting temptation.)
Greatly compounding the problem is the fact that our society has rendered the necessity for physical exertion largely obsolete. You don't burn many calories sitting in a chair typing on a computer keyboard, but in most modern jobs (including mine), that is how we spend most of our time. If I'm not sitting in a chair, I'm not doing my job.
These health reports tend to take on an admonishing tone, as if we're getting fat just because we're weak-willed and lazy. In reality, this obesity phenomenon is the logical consequence of the lifestyle our culture promotes, and we aren't going to reverse the trend unless we change our thinking and rearrange some of our priorities.
Our government needs to do a better job of labeling foods so that we can easily recognize the total number of calories, fat and carbohydrates that are contained in the food we eat, and I would include similar information for every menu item at every restaurant and concession stand. It would also help if the FDA would come out with consistent, straightforward dietary recommendations so we can apply this nutritional data in a coherent manner.
Public facilities that promote physical activity should be made more accessible and available. People need places to go jogging, walking and biking without putting their lives at risk, but most city planners put no emphasis on sidewalks, public parks and hiking trails.
Corporations that employ people in sedentary jobs should offer 30-minute, paid exercise breaks as part of each workday for employees who don't want to completely waste away physically. That would benefit both the employee and the corporation, as employees gain energy during the workday and reduce the amount of health-related time away from the job.
We need to find new ways to maintain our physical health, and to do that, we need to make it a cultural priority. Either that or we need to get used to a future of stretch pants and increasingly shorter life span.
Bill Ferguson is a columnist for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph.