New Obesity Finding: Michelle Obama Was Right After All

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Politico writer Michelle Cottle recently referred to First Lady Michelle Obama as a “feminist nightmare” for daring to make education and childhood obesity her signature platform. In Cottle’s smug opinion, Michelle’s commitment to curbing America’s obesity epidemic is trivial pursuit,  but new research suggests that the First Lady’s campaign is anything but.

Canadian researchers are dispelling the myth that someone can be obese and healthy. Until recently, it was believed that as long as an individuals cholesterol, blood pressure and blood-sugar readings were normal, weight was  irrelevant.

In an analysis of data pooled from several previous studies, researchers at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital found people who were obese but metabolically healthy had a significantly increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke and of dying prematurely.

“Our research findings challenge the myth that there is such a thing as healthy obesity if people maintain normal-range readings of cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure,” said endocrinologist Dr. Ravi Retnakaran, co-author of the study in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine.

My Chat With A Doctor

Dr. Ruby Sampson, a gastroenterologist/hepatologist based in North Jersey  generally agrees with the study’s findings. “Obesity is a disease in itself,” she says, attributing obesity to the onset of ailments like diabetes, hypertension, GERD, arthritis, asthma, and sleep apnea which can eventually lead to cardiac arrhythmia.

“Even if you are healthy at the moment, eventually you will start to deteriorate.”

But Dr. Sampson says one should not confuse being overweight (having a BMI between 25 and 30) with being obese. She also notes Body Mass Index standards are slightly different for African-Americans who often have heavier frames than Caucasians on whom the BMI standards are formulated.

Broader Impact

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This new research effects many in a country where obesity rates are abnormally high. More than 1/3 of US adults are obese.

Obesity affects nearly half the African-American community, where the battle of the bulge is particularly perilous.

Experts often cite lifestyle habits and portion sizes as the culprit for American obesity, but new findings suggest that staying slim, for some, isn’t as easy as diet and exercise.

Studies have shown that hormones in the body such as leptin and ghrelin play a role in the weight status of an individual. These hormones are just a few of the hormones that regulate energy balance in the human body.

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Leptin, a hormone that is primarily produced by fat, circulates in the bloodstream and communicates with the brain whether or not the body has had enough to eat. For persons that have a higher leptin level, they will tend to eat more as their body does not sense that there is enough food or energy on board. The leptin level varies from person to person, but some studies suggest that blacks are more likely to have a higher leptin level than whites.

Many make light of America’s obesity epidemic, failing to understand its more complex causes and consequences. It isn’t always as simple as saying obese people  should go on a diet and exercise.

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America’s corpulence ultimately reflects its deep socioeconomic and racial disparities. According to the CDC, obesity in women increases as income and education levels decrease. And this makes sense. Afterall how can we expect obese individuals in undeserved communities to reach a healthy size when there is little to no access to fresh produce, health education materials, or even a safe path on which to walk?

There is no quick solution for America’s epidemic, and it will likely remain. This is a super-sized nation. We like everything big. Our cars, skyscrapers, our big macs… so why not our bellies?

Still, even without a clear end in sight, there is nothing wrong with an initiative that promotes healthy eating and exercise in young people who must grow up in a society with big portions and even bigger inequalities. Perhaps “Let’s Move” is less about a fun photo-op, and more about encouraging kids of a sedentary, tech generation to actually go outside, get some fresh air, and play. Perhaps planting a vegetable garden is less about playing up her role as mom-in-chief, and more about encouraging people to grow their own produce, especially in neighborhoods where healthy options are in short supply.

No, Miss Obama isn’t out burning  bras on the White House lawn, but she may be quietly saving lives. I’ll salute that any day.

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