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Obesity in Maine: An exercise in politics over progress

In 1990, just over 10 percent of Maine adults were considered obese. Ten years later, the statistic was just short of 20 percent.

Right now, 30 percent of adults living here are considered obese.

As shocking as these figures are, they don’t tell the real story.

In 1990, the actual number of obese adults living here was 134,288. A decade later, 107,065 more had joined that rank. And today, there are statistically 398,700 obese adults in Maine — about three times the number weighing in a quarter-century ago.

We know the rate of childhood obesity, too, because — despite the flurry of recriminations in the 2nd District congressional race this week — children have been weighed in school for decades upon decades.

In Maine, childhood obesity rates are much lower than for adults.

For children 10 to 17 years old, the rate is 12.5 percent, or 42nd in the nation — to the good. For this age group, it’s the lowest rate in New England.

If we consider the obesity rates only of Maine’s high school students, the news is not so good.

The rate for high school alone is 13.3 percent, so just slightly higher after middle-schoolers are taken out of the equation. That means Maine’s obesity problem appears to gain steam in high school and continue on through adulthood, when our rate surpasses that of all our neighboring states.

Teens have, for some years, been replacing physical activity with screen time.

For instance, last year, just 27 percent of high school students reported being active for at least 60 minutes a day. In that same age group, 42 percent used a computer for three or more hours outside of schoolwork. If you figure the sedentary time spent in school, and another three hours in front of a computer, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for exercise.

So, while Maine rates are relatively low in middle to high school, the numbers climb dramatically as we age.

These measures are critically important if we’re to identify what triggers long-term obesity, and what can be done in youth to prevent a lifetime of ill health.

The flap this week over an Emily Cain-backed bill in 2007 to collect childhood measures — including weight — was pure politics.

The National Republican Congressional Committee’s message that Cain was fat-shaming teenage girls was intended to incite, which it did, and Cain’s personal tale of struggling with weight was designed to draw empathy, which it did.


Rhetoric to win office.

What about action to address the problem?

If there was any constructive conversation about Maine’s weight during the week, it was lost in the din of the multi-million-dollar fight for national office.

Here at home, if we extrapolate Maine’s obesity rate — assuming it stays steady — over the next 25 years the reality is nearly half the population will be obese, resulting in an exceptionally unhealthy existence and producing a real drain on resources.

It means higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity-related cancers, arthritis, hypertension, all of which push up the cost of private and public health care. And, sicker people all but guarantee reduced workplace productivity.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there were 91,512 treated cases of heart disease in Maine in 2010. If the trend continues on track, the projected cases will climb to 462,648 by 2030, a five-fold increase.

There will be 50 percent more diabetes cases and cancer cases will more than double.

That’s a lot of illness and anxiety that could be avoided in many, many cases with guidance and education — and the best proven course of action is to make that happen as young as possible before poor habits become permanent.

Did we talk about that this week?


Instead, we witnessed an exercise in finger pointing and righteous outrage.

Which changed absolutely nothing about Maine’s looming weight crisis.


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