Inequality leads to obesity in the community


The Appalachian Online

Chamian Cruz

Sustain Appalachian’s showing of “Fed Up,” part of their sixth annual film series in January, shed light on the social injustice and inequality that contribute to the obesity epidemic affecting people living in poverty in Watauga County.

“At Appalachian, the tendency is to think when someone says sustainability [it] is ‘[let’s] save the planet, let’s recycle, let’s compost,’” said Donna Presnell, university program specialist at Appalachian State University. “All of those are important parts of what we do, but we try to make sure that people do not forget about social justice, equality and economics as well.”

The World Health Organization defines obesity as an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a health risk.

More than 34 percent of U.S. adults and approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese, and there is a 25-30 percent obesity rate in North Carolina, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Once you get outside of the town limits of Boone, Watauga County actually suffers from [a] 68 percent child hunger rate,” Presnell said. “It is one of the highest hunger rates in the United States.”

As a prime factor to obesity, people who have limited means or rely on government assistance have very little to no access to nutritious food. When they can afford to buy food, they are forced to buy cheap, processed, chemical-laden and high-calorie food, because their bodies crave a high calorie count to stay alive, Presnell said.

“Just because it says lean, fat free or diet on the label, if it has more than three ingredients in it, it is bad for you,” Presnell said.

Presnell said predictions state that in 10 years, 75 percent of Americans will be obese if the obesity epidemic continues, and that this, in turn, would affect the economy by putting financial responsibility on taxpayers.

“Those of us who are healthy, who are working, who are able to eat good meals everyday, we are now burdened with the care of these people who are morbidly obese and sick and dying and what that’s going to do to our economy in a few years is devastating,” Presnell said.

In 2008, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion and the estimated medical cost for people who are obese was $1,429 higher than those of normal weight, according to the CDC.

Obesity-related health issues include diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, mental health conditions and an increased risk of developing cancer in the esophagus, pancreas, colon and rectum, breast, kidney, gall bladder and thyroid, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The most common symptoms of obesity are decreased motivation and energy, back and joint pain, difficulty sleeping and low self-esteem, which can all affect optimal performance in work and school, said Chloe Paddison, senior nutrition and foods major who served on the panel following the showing of “Fed Up.”

“The most accurate indicator we are using these days to assess susceptibility to obesity-related health issues is the waist circumference measurement,” Paddison said. “Males with a waist measurement of greater than 40 inches at the bellybutton are significantly more at risk for experiencing complications. The same goes for women with a waist measurement of greater than 35 inches.”

Although obesity is on the rise, it is preventable.

“We are very fortunate to live in an area where we can buy food at a farmer’s market,” Presnell said. “You can actually buy inexpensive, healthy food locally if you just pay attention.”

A healthy meal and balanced diet consists of the four main food groups – vegetables, fruits, proteins and grains – while also paying close attention to portion size, Paddison said.

“When choosing your food, half of your plate should be made up of fruits and vegetables – one or the other, or a mixture of the two,” Presnell said. “One-fourth of the plate should have lean protein – baked, grilled or sautéed chicken, turkey, seafood, eggs or plant-based proteins such as beans. The remaining fourth should be made up of whole grains.”

As a vital step, Presnell suggests teaching people living with obesity or with limited access to nutritious food how to cook healthy, fresh and nutritious meals.

“For most people, it is so much easier to go to a grocery store and pull something out of a box that you’re going to stick in a microwave and feed it to your kids because it’s easy and quick,” Presnell said. “They just never learn the skill of cooking with actual whole ingredients.”

Paddison said she thinks learning to cook is a great skill for everyone to have.

“If you learn the basics, you can have better control over the food that you are putting in your body, which plays a large role in determining your overall health,” Paddison said.

Presnell said organizations such as Appalachian Voices, Blue Ridge Women and Agriculture and students working on the Sustainable Development Farm should come together to organize ways of providing nutritious food to people in the community who need it.

Story: by Chamian Cruz, Intern News Reporter