Vitality

Americans Work Out More Than Ever, So Why Are Obesity Rates Increasing?

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Americans waist-sizes are increasing, but we're exercising even more. So what gives? Getty Images

Every day it seems like we are bombarded with new fitness trends and exercises. Men and women alike tout secret ways to get a better butt, back, and arms on Facebook and Instagram. And many Americans heed the advice of these fitness folks — approximately 55 percent of Americans exercise three or four times per week. However, obesity among Americans is still growing at a rapid rate, leading to related diseases such as stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and premature death.

In the United States more than 35 percent of adults are obese. Those numbers are even higher in the African-American and Latino communities, at 47.8 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

Why are obesity rates climbing if physical activity rates are increasing, too? The answer lies in a number of factors, such as food quality, awareness of healthy eating habits, and accessibility to better ingredients, which contribute to this rising epidemic.

Dr. Phoenyx Austin, a sports medicine and nutrition specialist, says that there are a couple of factors that contribute to these alarming numbers. The first is that people aren’t consuming the right types of calories. “Recent research has shown that not all calories are created equal,” she told Medical Daily. Researchers conducting a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that calories from different types of foods affect body composition and metabolism differently. In this case, cutting some fat from the diet led to greater weight loss than reducing carbohydrates by the same amount.

Another factor is portion control, Austin said. “For a lot of people, they are eating more calories than they’re actually aware of,” Austin said. “On the basis level of physiology it’s almost impossible to burn off the calories that you’re consuming. The average person would literally need to work out for two hours straight to burn off 500 to 600 calories. So you can’t outexercise a bad diet.” Instead, people losing weight need to cut down on the amount of poor quality foods that they eat.

That’s easier said than done, since over the years, meal portions have gotten increasingly bigger. Twenty years ago, a bagel was 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories. Now the average bagel is 6 inches in diameter and double the calorie count.

We also have to consider the fact that people are more sedentary than they use to be. Lifestyles have changed drastically and eating habits should coincide with these changes. “When I look at people at the gym, they think they can walk on the treadmill for a half-hour and they can just lose weight,” Jim Cipriani, a certified personal trainer, told Medical Daily. “There has to be some balance between intensity, nutrition, and lifestyle.”

The quality of the foods we eat also has a great influence on our bodies and the energy we use daily. “The processed foods are the the worst for you,” Cipriani said. They cost almost nothing to make, because in many cases they’re made with low-quality ingredients that have little nutritional value. “If you can get a hamburger off the dollar menu, and the company is still making a profit off of it, you know that there’s something going on there.”

Scientists still aren’t sure of the long term effects that these foods have on our bodies. In a study from 2011 published by the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that highly processed foods don’t actually satisfy hunger. In fact, you need more of these processed foods to feel fuller than you would with a plant-based and protein-filled diet. During the study, researchers concluded that foods like chips, soda, and processed meats caused people to gain an average of 4 pounds over a period of four years. Diets that were plant-based and filled with whole grains, on the other hand, were linked to weight loss. One of the study authors, Dr. Frank Hu, from the Harvard School of Public Health, told NIH: “The idea that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods is a myth that needs to be debunked.”

This issue extends beyond awareness of what the best foods are and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some people do want a better and healthier lifestyle, but they can’t maintain it. The authors of a recent study found that people may not have control over their urges to eat unhealthy foods, which leads to a vicious cycle.

"If you’re working out all of the time, and you’re still not losing weight, you have to look at your diet," Austin said. "It’s all about understanding what we are putting into our bodies and how our bodies will respond to it."

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