04/09/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Why Are We Getting Fatter?

It subtly crept up on me. Last summer, I took my 3-year-old grandson for a swim at my gym's kiddie pool. While I was in my bathing suit pushing him around, I saw young moms in their 20s and 30s sitting around on lounge chairs, covered up in loose T-shirts and baggy cotton shorts. Each weekend, I take Ryder to the park -- chasing him around and going down the slide with him. But in the distance, I see more young mothers sitting on blankets eating big bags of Doritos and Subway sandwiches, and slurping Big Gulps as they passively watch their children play.

When did we get so lazy?

I live in California: land of a great climate and sunshine. In Sacramento, we have a beautiful 30-mile bike trail along the river where you can cycle, hike, jog or walk. Why was everyone getting fat?

"We live for the moment," said Dr. John Peters, associate professor at the University of Denver. He said most people don't think about the long-term bad consequences of their health.

But the consequences have arrived. For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control sadly reports the obesity rate is 20 percent or higher in all 50 states, with 12 states having rates of more than 30 percent.

A new field poll was released in California on April 4 that said unhealthy eating habits and a lack of physical activity are the biggest health risks facing children today, according to a survey of California voters.

Like obesity slowly builds in the body, so did the epidemic. Ten or 15 years ago, America was not "Obesity Nation." Today, 32 percent of American men are obese, as are 35 percent of women. Sadly, 32 percent of our children are overweight or obese. That is more than one in four.

I just attended a conference on obesity put on by the National Press Foundation at the brand new Colorado Center for Health and Wellness in Aurora, Colo. Experts were brought in from around the country. The reasons they gave for the problem were compound and complex.

We've become more sedentary. In the new economy when workers are required to do the jobs of two or three people, we sit at our computers all day. When we get home, we sit some more. Studies show we spend an average of 4.5 hours a day sitting in front of a television, computer or video game. We walk from our offices to our cars then drive into our garages. Only 4 percent of the population does the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day. And who has time to cook, especially healthy food? Our busy society has made fast food and processed frozen dinner meals a convenience. And so has poverty.

The curious thing, I was told, is that we don't think we're fat! If one in four people is overweight, then you're not feeling that bad about yourself. One doctor told me most Americans don't think they're heavy. They look at The Biggest Loser and say, "I'm not fat like that!" -- even if they weigh more than 200 pounds. So why do we eat so much?

Dr. Peters gave one theory.

"Humans are hard-wired to like sugar, fat and salt," Peters said, citing a study where 3-day-old infants preferred sweeter formula over breast-fed mother's milk.

Peters said it's difficult for us to break our eating habits. Eating is a habit, just like brushing our teeth. Dieting is not.

Dr. Holly Wyatt, a nutrition expert, said that in her experience, the average person can only last up to six months on a diet then will revert. She doesn't decide which diet is best for her clients. She encourages them to try the one they can best adhere to. Dr. Wyatt, and all of the doctors, said most people can lose weight. The problem is, they can't keep it off.

One of the most shocking statements I heard came from the former head of the American Heart Association, Dr. Robert Eckel. He said there are no good studies on the health benefits of losing large amounts of weight because most people have gained it back in five years!

This epidemic is not just taking a toll on our nation's health, but a financial one for individuals, businesses and the country. Some estimates say employers are losing $225.8 billion dollars a year or more on productivity due to personal and family health problems.

The head of the Denver Chamber of Commerce said some companies are now even looking at state, city and county obesity rates before deciding whether to move or relocate. Who wants to pay extra for illness, non-productivity, lost days at work and medical costs?

But what's it going to take to change?

One doctor told the story of how he told a patient he must change his lifestyle or he would be dead in five years. The patient didn't care. That didn't scare him. But the doctor rephrased it and said "Don't you want to walk your daughter down the aisle when she gets married?" The patient finally took his consequences seriously. The doctor personalized it. And the man changed his ways.

So what else works?

In the most extreme cases, doctors agreed on gastric bypass surgery. But statistics show that a number of patients may revert to their old habits in years following surgery. Next, I was surprised to hear most doctors advocate wellness beginning in the workplace. Get companies to offer health incentives. Provide health snacks and exercise programs. But are we open to letting our workplace guide our health?

Dr. James Hill, executive director of the new Colorado Health and Wellness Center, has been studying obesity for more than a decade.

He recommends a reduced-fat diet, high level of physical activity, limited TV, dietary restraint, frequent self-weighing and eating breakfast. Be active. Over the course of a day, with every step you take, you should put in one hour of physical activity. If you walk 15 minutes, you'll lose 100 calories.

As the respondents to California field poll said: "Voters from all political parties, demographics and regions agreed that a poor diet and exercise are the biggest health risks facing California's children."

If America became obese in a little more than a decade, can we reverse the trend? Doctors agree prevention is key -- and we need to get to children first. Once adults become overweight, we've lost them.

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