CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Obesity must be conquered

February 20, 2006

By now, everybody knows obesity is a huge health problem in our country.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that obesity is linked to 112,000 deaths per year and leads to an extra $75 billion in direct medical costs annually.

We Hoosiers can hold up a mirror. Depending on which study you look at, Indiana ranks either fourth or fifth as the most obese state in the nation.

Our local daily newspaper just published a series of articles on how that problem manifests itself among our children.

It's not a pretty picture. To their credit, some members of the Indiana General Assembly are trying to do something about it. In January, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a junkfood bill that would limit the sale of pop and high-fat snacks in elementary schools. As of this writing, it's unclear whether the initiative will get a hearing in the House.

In a year when business-related issues like highways and deregulation are getting the lion's share of attention, the junk-food bill appears to be a minor blip on the radar. That's unfortunate.

For a nation whose health care system is out of control, it would seem conquering obesity would be a major step and worthy goal, if only from a fiscal perspective.

There's a personal side to this story.

I need look no farther than down the hall in my office to see how losing weight can change a person's life. I'm talking about Glenda Russell, publisher of three IBJ Corp. newspapers and a co-worker and friend for more than 20 years.

Glenda was always overweight. She battled asthma, chronic back pain and bad knees, and was at high risk for diabetes and heart disease. She was on three prescription medications. In December 2004, she reached her zenith, tipping the scales at 239 pounds.

Her longtime endocrinologist, Dr. Ana Priscu, finally put her foot down with a little tough love and told Glenda in no uncertain terms that she'd better lose weight or she'd have to find a new physician.

"You can find another doctor who is willing to watch you die," Dr. Priscu told her.

About a month later, Glenda, who, over the years had tried several weight-losing programs to no avail, made a commitment to change and found one that worked. As of last week, Glenda weighed in at 165 pounds. She's gone from a size 22 dress to a size 10 and wants to lose 15 more pounds.

But here's the best part. She feels much better-no more breathing problems, no more back pain, and lots more energy-and she no longer takes any of her meds. Even more important, she feels like a million bucks emotionally and psychologically, too!

How's that for making a personal contribution to health care reform?

A similar personal tale from the South can provide more anecdotal evidence, plus inspiration and guidelines for our governor and the Indiana General Assembly. Indiana need look no further than Arkansas.

That state's governor, Mike Huckabee, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2003. His doctor told him he would probably be dead in 10 years. Huckabee was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 290 pounds.

Not anymore.

After changing his diet and lifestyle, Huckabee lost 110 pounds. Meanwhile, he has morphed into an anti-obesity zealot and a leader in state government efforts to improve health and stem the rising tide of health care costs.

He has turned Arkansas into a state on the cutting edge of introducing laws and policies that encourage healthier lifestyles.

Among other things, the state has introduced legislation curbing the sale of soft drinks in schools, informing parents of their children's body mass index as a step to encouraging fitness, giving exercise breaks as well as smoking breaks, paying for preventive checkups such as mammograms and prostate exams, and many more.

If Arkansas can do it, Indiana can. If Glenda (grussell@ibj.com) can do it, you can, too!

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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