The state's annual tab for obesity is 1.8 billion

By Jennifer Lassiter
Star Staff

Fighting fat has become an obsession for many, but despite the latest bombardment of low-carb and low-fat diets on the market, Americans and Tennesseans haven't been fitting the bill.
   The state's annual tab for obesity is running a hefty 1.8 billion dollars a year. These numbers don't include the costs of chronic disease that can be directly linked with obesity such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. In 2001, 167 people died from cancer, and 184 died of heart disease in Carter County alone.
   The 1.8 billion does include state-level estimates of Medicare and Medicaid expenditures attributable to obesity, but insurers will not include preventative care. Out of pocket costs patients have to endure for prevention of the epidemic, such as a gym membership and nutrition counseling, can run approximately $150 a month.
   Dr. Tony DeLucia, a professor of surgery at East Tennessee State University's Quillen College of Medicine, is a speaker and avid bicyclist. DeLucia has postdoctoral training and research publications in the interactions of air pollution, exercise, and other environmental conditions with other major determinants of health.
   DeLucia recently attended a conference in Maine, which specifically focused on important risk factors of obesity. A study found that "people who live in neighborhoods with a mix of shops and businesses within easy walking distance are 7 percent less likely to be obese, lowering their relative risk of obesity by 35 percent."
   DeLucia rode his bike to our interview despite busy traffic and the humid weather conditions near Johnson City's newest strip mall. He walked in smiling, dripping with sweat and ready to address our region's "growing" community.
   DeLucia talked specifically about the restructuring of communities to make it easier to walk rather than drive to shopping centers. Adults in Tennessee, according to the CDC and pointed out by DeLucia, are 5.2 percent less active than the national average, mainly due to suburban sprawl.
   The answer to the obesity epidemic and the chronic conditions that relate to fat is not a simple one. Being a fast food nation, and our community structure, may be just a glimpse into the problem at hand.
   DeLucia said, "We are the sedentary part of the country; we are the couch potato part of the country. Go Vols, we are a region of spectators."
   What does it mean to be obese?
   Obesity has been measured by the National Institute of Health (NIH) based on the relationship between height and weight called body mass index (BMI). According to NIH, BMI can be used to screen for overweight and obesity in adults. It is the most widely used method, but not the only method used. BMI is calculated by multiplying your weight in pounds by 704.5 then divide that result by your height in inches a second time.
   Based on a report released by the 2002 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey there were 24.6 percent obese and 37.7 percent overweight Tennesseans.
   Fighting fat is going to be an ongoing process that may never end, according to DeLucia, but he is hopeful that solutions will be provided with the hard work of doctors, planners and common people.
   A start to the solution is getting local government officials to start thinking about planning, and how towns, such as Elizabethton, are arranged so people feel more at ease to walk or ride bikes; limiting children's access to junk food and sugary drinks; becoming more aware of the obesity epidemic and its effects on our society; and educating ourselves on what we are consuming.