It’s clear to the Zwolinski family that pursuing a healthful lifestyle is more like running a long-distance marathon than sprinting.
But they’re in it for the long haul. Brothers Matthew, 9, and David, 6, crave fruits and vegetables and took swimming lessons last summer. Joe, their 49-year-old father, recently lost 80 pounds through a medical weight-loss program.
But there are challenges. Matthew has discovered he’s got his father’s genes, meaning a disposition to gain weight. Joe has regained more than half of what he lost, in part because work pressures now keep him from his lunch-hour walks.
Mother Kim, 45, maintains a healthful weight. But she struggles with junk food, especially chocolate, when she’s stressed. “Don’t leave me with a pan of brownies,” she says.
The Sterling Heights family is among the thousands of Michiganians and millions of Americans caught up in an obesity epidemic that began in the United States half a century ago.
Today, two out of three U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to government statistics — if the view at the mall isn’t proof enough. Almost 17 percent of children and teenagers across the nation are obese, as are one out of four residents of this state.
The weight brings an increased risk for type-2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. It has also been linked to arthritis, infertility, sleep apnea, asthma, and depression, among others, says Dr. Tom Rifai. “We live in an obesigenic society,” says Rifai, medical director of Metabolic Nutrition & Weight Management at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac.
Contributing to this culture, he points out, are commercials and food service in stores and cafeterias that promote unhealthful choices, the prevalence of refined snacks such as bagels and doughnuts, and lack of fresh food in urban areas.
In fact, a good amount of research argues that the American way of life is at the root of the problem and makes losing weight unduly difficult. Two-income households leave little time for home cooking; cheap fast food is often loaded with fat, calories, and salt; government sugar and corn subsidies lead to cheap, taste-hyping ingredients.
It’s a design and product problem, too: Cities and suburbs make biking and walking difficult and dangerous; while electronic toys keep children immobilized for hours.
No wonder the Zwolinskis’ attack on unhealthful habits sometimes seems like a seesaw.
But they are making progress, their family doctor says, because they’re doing so many things right.
Dr. Bernadette Gendernalik says the family reads food labels, serves carrots and celery as snacks, and rides the bikes they bought for family exercise. Kim and Joe even do an impressive hand-off for dinner. She works part-time in the evenings, so Kim preps healthful dinner ingredients during the day. Joe cooks them after work.
Gendernalik also put Joe and Kim on cholesterol-lowering medication, which has helped. She sent Matthew to a dietitian when she saw he was echoing his father.
“It’s a tough struggle, but I think it’s do-able,” Gendernalik says.
Rifai says there are many small things people can do to enhance their efforts. Just getting up off your chair and standing or walking can help burn 200 to 400 extra calories a day.
“Sitting is a very taxing behavior,” he warns.
Children, especially, are behaving very differently than the previous generation, Gendernalik says, and that leads to lots of sitting.
“I’m 52, and we used to play outside until the streetlights came on, and now you have to kick kids out of the house,” she says. The doctor urges parents to ensure that their children get two hours of outdoor activity daily during the summer and one hour during the school year.
But the doctor admits that even she has challenges setting a good example for her patients. Although Gendernalik packs her own lunches and totes a six-pack of light yogurt for snacks, her recent marriage has her commuting daily from Ann Arbor to Macomb County. “When I used to exercise first thing in the morning, I’m now driving,” she says.
Despite such lifestyle challenges, which feed pervasive obesity, some see many people making an about-face.
“It is very clear that the most successful at weight loss are those who modify their eating and exercise,” says registered dietitian Susanne Gunsorek of Providence Park Hospital in Novi. “The research into childhood obesity really shows that the whole family has to get on board.”
Other forces are gathering to help families. Educators and the government are trying to improve cafeteria choices and eliminate school vending machines for pop and sugary snacks, Gunsorek says. Some insurance companies are offering incentives such as reduced co-pays for maintaining healthful blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass. And First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on the cause of encouraging families to eat right and exercise (letsmove.gov). Gunsorek offers her strategy for families trying to reverse unhealthful lifestyles. She starts with advice to limit or eliminate extra, unneeded calories such as those in sugary beverages, by substituting them with water or sugar-free drinks. She suggests splitting restaurant entrees that typically serve larger-than-necessary portions and forgoing concentrated sweets by substituting fruit for doughnuts and cookies.
“People say, ‘I can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables; they’re too expensive’,” she says. “But I tell them they’ll save money by not buying junk.”
Rifai cautions that it takes time for both society and individuals to change. “I have to say I’m not too optimistic about turning around the obesity epidemic,” he says. “It’s more like a freighter than a speedboat, and turning it around isn’t going to happen quickly.”