Dennis T. Gordon

August 2021

Volume 75, No. 7

Group Discussion

Join the Discussion

To join an online discussion on this topic, IFT members can visit IFT Connect at iftconnect.org/obesity-epidemic-pandemic. Share your thoughts and see what others have to say!

There are many pressing social, economic, and political issues currently facing Americans. While all these issues deserve attention, their magnitude and diversity can appear overwhelming. It’s never easy to agree on their priority or relevance.

But there is one issue of individual and national importance, core to sustained health and quality of life, that cannot be ignored. Yet, as serious as the issue is, it goes on, unabated. It is so common that it defies attention and management. This crisis cries out for help, yet many appear to respond, “Let it be.”

The COVID-19 virus sparked an acute health crisis, with near miracle accomplishments to develop vaccines in a year’s time, and national resolve to stem its devastation. But America’s existing obesity epidemic-pandemic (O E-P) is an enduring, chronic health crisis. When placed in perspective as to its effects on overall and long-term health and wellness, it is just as devasting as COVID. There is no vaccine.

"The obesity epidemic-pandemic needs attention, and IFT needs to stand up and stand out in acknowledging the association of calories and weight gain."

- Dennis T. Gordon, Professor Emeritus , North Dakota State University
Dennis Gordon

The average American life expectancy is 79 years, but the average health span is just 63 years. There are many reasons to explain the large gap between a healthy life age and one’s life span. However, lack of weight management, and a state of being obese, are important negative health factors. NHANES data from 2013–2014 indicate 73.7% and 66.9% of all males and females, respectively, were overweight. Additionally, 35% and 40.4% of men and women, respectively, were obese.

The data for children are equally alarming. For children ages two to 19, 17.2% are obese, and 6.0% have extreme obesity. This should be considered a national tragedy and disgrace.

From 1958 to 2015, diagnosed diabetes increased from 0.93% to 7.4% (mainly type 2 diabetes) among Americans. For youths younger than 20 years, in the period 2002–2015, the rate of increase in type 2 diabetes was 4.8% per year. The negative health aspect of  type 2 diabetes is expanded with the complication of diabetic nephropathy, kidney disease. About one out of three adults with diabetes has kidney disease.

Directly and indirectly, the food industry is associated with the increasing O E-P. However, this association does not (and should not) imply cause. Too often we want to place blame (i.e., the food industry, snack foods, sugar, etc.) We describe foods as “good or bad,” “nutritious,” “empty calories,” “healthy or unhealthy.” All foods provide varying levels of nutrients and calories. The calories in any one food are not the cause of poor weight management and obesity. The culprit and direct cause is excess calorie consumption over extended periods, irrespective of its food source.

Obesity is a drain on our nation’s vigor and stability. The O E-P needs attention, and IFT needs to stand up and stand out in acknowledging the association of calories and weight gain. The goal is not to blame calories, but to educate how calorie intake can be managed. It should be part of an ongoing education program, in concert with individual companies, community groups, other professional associations, and government agencies. We need to be not only working to promote safe and nutritious foods but to help educate the consumer how calorie restriction can lead to weight management and achieve the health that is so needed and desired today.

The food industry and IFT can and must make a significant contribution. But we must remember, as it has taken three to five decades to reach obesity’s current epidemic-pandemic status, it may take decades of sustained education to help stem its existence.

We have a serious national health problem affecting approximately 75% of all Americans. Yet the O E-P does not lend itself to be a priority issue, demanding a robust, sustained effort to resolve. This lack of unified interest must change. Weight management is a personal issue, but begging for help.

The problem has no champion. We must be that champion.

I urge IFT and its members to become involved in helping to address the O E-P with their creative ideas. Addressing this crisis should explicitly be part of IFT’s vision and mission. Consumers want quality, safe, and nutritious foods, and increasingly want foods to provide for their health. This can only come through education. Become involved. Join the discussion on IFT Connect. Together, we must pledge to cure this personal and collective pandemic. FT

About the Author

Dennis T. Gordon, PhD, is a member of IFT, is professor emeritus, North Dakota State University ([email protected]).

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