Obesity to Outweigh Public Health Gains of Declining Smoking Rates

Public-health programs and rising cigarette taxes reduced smoking rates from 37 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the declining number of smokers has resulted in health improvements in U.S. adults over the past 40 years, a study conducted by Harvard and University of Michigan researchers published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine says that if obesity trends continue, the negative effect on the health of the U.S. population will overtake the benefits gained from declining smoking rates.

In the past 15 years, smoking rates have declined by 20 percent, but obesity rates have increased by 48 percent. Today about one-third of adults in the U.S are obese, according to the CDC. If past trends continue, nearly half of the population—45 percent—is projected to be obese by 2020, says Susan Stewart, lead author of the study and research associate at Harvard University.

Obesity plays a large role in life expectancy, says co-author Allison Rosen, assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan. She says that despite the fact that Americans are smoking less, body-mass indexes (BMI) are going up and that the increase in obesity is overtaking the changes in U.S. smoking behaviors. In other words, the rising incidence of obesity could counter the recent increases in longevity.

Researchers found that despite declines in smoking, the life expectancy of a typical 18-year-old would be held back by 0.71 years by the year 2020 because of the increased BMI of the general population. If, on the other hand, all U.S. adults became nonsmokers of normal weight by 2020, their life expectancy would be forecast to increase by 3.76 years.

If you are concerned about obesity and its effects on your health, here are some tips to get you heading in the right direction.

Tips for Healthy Weight Loss

Achieving a healthy weight can be done by making changes in your lifestyle, including dietary changes, increased activity, and behavior change. Slow and steady weight loss of 1 or 2 pounds a week is considered the safest way to lose weight and the best way to keep it off permanently.

Review your daily calorie intake. Write down and review your typical eating and drinking habits to see how many calories you normally consume. You may be eating larger portions than you thought, or realize that your diet includes lots of fast food, sweets or sugary drinks. Make a list of where you can cut back.

Reduce your daily calorie intake.  Talk with your doctor about how many calories you need to take in each day to achieve weight loss and set up a plan.

Eat healthy foods. When you adopt an overall healthier diet, rather than going on a crash diet, you're more likely to follow it for the long term. Health experts recommend eating more plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also emphasize plant sources of protein, such as beans, lentils and soy. For other sources of protein, choose lean meats and seafood. Limit salt and sugar intake. Stick with low-fat dairy products, and get fats from healthy sources, such as nuts, olive and canola oils.

Increase your daily physical activity. This is essential to weight loss because it helps you burn calories. How many calories you burn depends on the frequency, duration, and intensity of your activity. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people who are overweight or obese get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as walking, cycling, stair climbing or swimming) to prevent further weight gain or to lose a modest amount of weight.

To achieve significant weight loss, you may need to get as much as 250 to 300 minutes of exercise a week. Start slowly (10-15 minutes a day) and then build toward 30-45 minutes of exercise at least 5 days a week.

Seek counseling or a support group. Examining what factors or situations may have contributed to your obesity is crucial to losing weight and keeping it off. Therapy with trained mental health professionals can help you understand why you overeat, address emotional and behavioral issues related to eating, and learn healthy ways to create a healthier lifestyle.


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Masson, M. Obesity trends outweigh health benefits gained by quitting smoking. University of Michigan, Public Relations. Dec. 7, 2009.

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Mayo Clinic Staff. Obesity. MayoClinic.com. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/obesity/DS00314/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs. Accessed Feb. 17, 2010.

Olmos, D. Obesity May Wipe Out Benefit of Anti-Smoking Effort. Bloomberg News. Dec. 2, 2009. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601124&sid=aNXmnDWK7AHA. Accessed Feb. 17, 2010.

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