SALT LAKE CITY — Think iraq is one of the biggest challenges confronting Americans?
Maybe the next terrorist attack from Al Qaeda? Or what about the national debt? Eroding Social Security benefits?
It turns out that one of the greatest challenges confronting Americans is the shape of their own bodies. It's obesity, with a really big "O."
Americans are eating more and enjoying the consequences less. There is national angst about the size of the collective bulging waistline. Almost everybody, it seems, is talking about the problem, usually, as one wag says, over a bag of "value size" fries and a 64-ounce cup of Coke. An avalanche of studies posit the view that we are in trouble, gluttonously speaking. The National Institutes of Health says two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third obese.
The latest study of Americans' eating habits during the past 30 years, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), finds that women have increased their caloric intake by 22 percent and men by 7 percent. Cookies, pasta, soda, and other carbohydrates are mostly to blame.
If some women can no longer slip into the dresses affected by those matchstick models on TV, and some men find themselves heading for the "large men's" clothing stores, there is more than a purely sartorial cost to all this.
Another report puts the public health impact of excess weight and a sedentary lifestyle at 300,000 premature deaths a year and more than $90 billion in annual healthcare costs. This report, by Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Chicago heart specialist Dr. Philip Greenland, urges primary-care doctors to take a few minutes with their patients who are overweight to talk about changing their ways.
"We will be spending more of our time addressing the health consequences of obesity if we don't spend these few minutes with prevention," the report's authors warn.
In the face of this concern, diet books proliferate, with plans that often contradict each other and confuse the reader. Advertises one New York health club chain: "Last year low fat. This year low carbs. You're down to us or liposuction."
Exercise books offer techniques for muscle toning, body sculpting, and fat burning. On cable TV, lissome women and bronzed men with large muscles and minuscule waists demonstrate intimidating machines with bars and cables and weights that will shed your pounds, and then at a moment's touch fold up flat under your bed.
Pizza Hut offers low-fat pizza and carryout salads. Subway Restaurants are on a campaign to make exercise and nutrition fun. Kraft says it is going to focus on healthier snacks and other new products to meet consumers' wellness concerns.
In Idaho, a Boise legislator has even been pushing a couple of laws to encourage less weightiness. One would allow insurance companies to offer discounts up to 20 percent for people who meet desired weight standards. Another would make insurance companies pay for weight reduction plans for people who are "morbidly obese."
Idaho State Rep. Margaret Henbest, a thin, tall blonde who is also a nurse practitioner when the legislature is not in session, installed a scale in the hallway of the House Chamber so lawmakers would be reminded to go easy in the dining room.
In a number of legislatures, there has been concern about the problem of snack and soda machines in public schools. They don't do much to combat obesity, but they generally do bring in money for schools, whose budgets are often tight.
Bombarded as they are by a barrage of television advertising plugging snack foods and sodas, teens and younger children are often easily tempted by today's king-size candy bars and "supersize" sodas. If the adult generation, after years of over-indulgence and underexercise, is fighting a rearguard action against excess weight, the alarm bells are ringing for the nation's children.
The CDC says that since 1980 the proportion of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled. The rate for adolescents has tripled. Today about 10 percent of kids 2 to 5 years old are overweight as are 15 percent of those 6 to 19 years old.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has been examining the impact of an explosion of media targeted at children - TV shows, videos, video games, computer activities, and websites - during the period when childhood obesity has increased so dramatically.
The research is mixed. But in a report last month, the foundation says the media could do more to promote fitness and sound nutrition.
The alarm bells are ringing, but the fat is not melting.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.