Bigger waists for Mainers, bigger waste for Maine

Posted June 04, 2009, at 6:51 p.m.

As I practiced family medicine over the course of the past 30 years, it was apparent to me that many of the complaints I treated could have been prevented or minimized if some of my patients had been able to maintain a healthy weight. In most cases, they wanted help but still struggled to successfully shed pounds. Now I work with Maine’s Medicaid program helping provide care management for MaineCare members. I’m sorry to say the picture is much the same, if not worse.

The obesity problem is reaching crisis proportions across the country, and Maine is no exception. Obesity rates for Mainers have increased 100 percent in just 17 years, ballooning from 12 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2006. The number of those who are overweight is also climbing. Nearly two-thirds of Mainers today are considered either overweight or obese, similar to Americans overall.

Alarmingly, we appear to be raising a new generation of Mainers to follow in our footsteps. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 33 percent of Maine children entering kindergarten have high body mass indexes, a key measure of body fat. High schoolers are not faring much better at 25 percent.

The problem is complex, requiring an innovative, comprehensive response from our education and public health systems, as well as from the private sector. Aetna, for example, has joined with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in a collaborative effort to fight childhood obesity. The state of Maine also needs to do its part, and the Legislature has a chance now to act on a bill that represents an important part of the solution. It would provide Mainers with an invaluable weapon in the battle against obesity: useful information.

I’m referring to LD 1259, “An Act to Increase Access to Nutrition Information,” introduced by Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, which would require chain restaurants to display the total amount of calories contained in an individual serving of foods and beverages served on the premises. Aetna fully supports this bill and urges all Mainers to do the same. It avoids burdensome new requirements for small “mom and pop” businesses. It also does not tell us what we can and cannot eat. It does require the availability of information we all need to make smart choices while dining out in many popular restaurants.

This information is critical. While Americans have been packing on the pounds, we have been increasingly relying on meals prepared or eaten outside the home. An estimated one-third of calories is consumed, and almost one-half of food dollars spent, in restaurants or similar food facilities. The fact that caloric information for restaurant foods today is almost never available at the point of sale is a significant factor in overconsumption while eating out.

The toll this takes on public health is high. We know obesity increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, some cancers and premature deaths. Public health experts now worry that our youth may be the first generation in America not to live as long as their parents’ generation. And adult obesity is believed to be the underlying cause of 11 percent of the Maine’s medical expenditures.

These dire consequences are largely preventable. Broader availability of nutrition information for foods served in chain restaurants is a relatively simple step we can take toward helping Mainers make informed decisions about the foods they purchase. Better health education is one of the top recommendations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for taking on obesity, and there is no better place to educate than at ground zero for unhealthful eating.

Passing this bill makes deliciously good sense. Shedding our ignorance of the calories we consume is critical to shedding the weight that goes with it. In doing so, we can all make a critical difference in our health and the health of our families.

Judith Chamberlain is the medical director for Maine for Schaller Anderson, an Aetna company.

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