COMMENTARY | A decade ago, we were in a state of mass hysteria over SARS. Three years ago, we panicked about swine flu. Today, we obsess about headlines related to mad cow disease and isolated outbreaks of measles. Yet, amid these panics, only one epidemic has actually broken out and claimed millions of innocent lives: obesity. This deadly disease is predicted to affect 42 percent of us by 2030, and yet we've become so accustomed to it that we're unafraid and nonchalant about these predictions.
Obesity is an inarguably lethal condition. It leads to a severe decline in quality of life, as well as serious physical problems, including cancer, liver failure, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and infertility. Although there are obese people who show few of the serious symptoms of the condition -- just as there are smokers who never develop problems -- complications of obesity are the norm, not the exception. And we should be very, very concerned.
After examining a number of interrelated factors through a scientific lens, scientists determined that obesity rates will continue to skyrocket over the course of the next eighteen years, with nearly half of adults suffering from obesity by 2030. The results of this broad-scale study were released today. This could result in an extreme decrease in life expectancy -- meaning our grandchildren will live shorter lives than we will -- and $550 million in medical costs. While it's not uncommon for people to dismiss these statistics as "fat panic," I personally think that we have reason to panic -- to the same degree that we would have reason to panic if any other lethal condition threatened to affect 42 percent of our population.
The answer to this looming pandemic is not to bury our heads in the sand and act like obesity isn't a problem. Absolutely all credible scientific evidence demonstrates that it is. But the answer also isn't to persecute or discriminate against people who are coping with obesity and its consequences. No one chooses to be obese, just as no one chooses to be anorexic; no one chooses to get cancer, and no one chooses to develop addictions. Stigma against obese people, well-documented by groups like the NAAFA, is unfair -- and it is a serious human rights violation that needs to stop.
However, there is very real danger in not reacting -- or "panicking," as some people characterize it -- to the ever-rising rates of obesity. If rates of cancer, HIV, or lung disease were increasing at these rates, there would be no question that consumers, companies, and government authorities would need to work together to halt the diseases' spread. We collectively owe it to ourselves to make efforts that will stop, or at least slow, current increases in obesity. Life is too precious to dismiss a confirmed pandemic without making efforts to stop or slow its progression.
Juniper Russo is a health advocate, freelance writer, and dedicated mom living in Chattanooga, Tenn.