Just by looking at the medal count from this year's Olympics in London, one might think of the United States as a country of athletes. If only it were so. Yes, Americans are still dominating many sports, but that doesn't take away from the fact that a dismal state of health and physical fitness plagues the country.
According to a survey conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011, the U.S. population is the third heaviest in the world, behind the Pacific islands of Kiribati and American Samoa. More than two-thirds of all Americans are overweight and more than one-third are obese and struggle with numerous weight- and lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
While the obesity crisis continues to worsen across the nation, some parts are harder hit than others. Based on a Gallup poll taken in 2011, the city of Evansville, Ind., has the fattest population in the U.S., with nearly 40 percent of its residents being obese.
What's even more alarming is that few Evansvillers seem to see this as a problem. In fact, many take great pride in calling their town "the nicest place to live in the U.S."
Among the things that make Evansville so nice is the annual "West Side Nut Club Fall Festival," a week-long binge fest specializing in fried foods, including fried brain sandwiches, a local specialty.
The place is also known as a test market of sorts for the restaurant industry. "Ever heard of the McDiner? Did you ever eat pizza at McDonald's? [...] That was just one of the many perks about dining in Evansville: We were guinea pigs," wrote Jessica Levco, a writer who grew up in what she still calls her "sweet River City."
Not everyone in town, however, thinks that being "fat and happy" is a sustainable formula. Sam Rogers, a PR manager at a local hospital, says the high rate of obesity creates lots of problems for the city.
"When I'm walking around the halls, here's what I see: Bigger wheelchairs, bigger beds, and bigger ambulances. We had to get a lift team to move bigger patients. [...] The cost of our lift team is $150,000 annually."
But, he added, "Our bariatric business is booming. We have three to five surgeries each week."
Still, city officials say they are determined to have Evansville lose its title as the American obesity capital. "I don't think it is particularly good news in our area," said Stephen Austin, the mayor of neighboring Henderson, which is part of the larger metropolitan region that was included in the poll, in an interview with the Daily Mail Reporter.
And indeed, some initiatives to curb Evansville's particularly high obesity rate have already been taken. Under the leadership of Lacy McNear, a registered dietitian at the local St. Mary's Medical Center, a program called "Smart Futures Pediatric Weight Management" has been designed to help both children and parents to make healthier food choices and engage in more regular exercise.
"We're hoping that [following the program] is a lifestyle change," said McNear in an interview with the Evansville Courier & Press, a local newspaper. Participating families are given consultation in basic dietetics over the course of six weeks. The hope is that when parents see positive changes in their kids, they will follow suit. It could be the beginning of major turnaround, who knows.
Evansville's story, of course, is America's story. On the one hand, there is growing awareness that obesity is a great threat to our public health (and health care system) and that something must be done. On the other hand, there are the agricultural, food manufacturing and restaurant industries that cannot conceive any changes in our eating habits as anything other than loss of business. So they fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. And then, there are ingrained habits and preferences that are hard to break. The vast majority of Americans still consider their food choices as a personal matter and exercise of individual freedom that should not be regulated or interfered with. That's understandable, but the consequences are plain to see.
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