County officials unveil new obesity numbers, portion-awareness campaign

Oct. 4, 2012, 2:20 p.m.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said new data on county obesity rates suggests a "worsening of the epidemic." (José Martinez/OnCentral)

The latest obesity numbers for L.A. County are in – and they don't look good.

At a press conference at Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles on Thursday morning, the director of the county's Department of Public Health, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, said Los Angeles' adult obesity rate has shot up 74 percent over the past 14 years.

That means that nearly 24 percent of adults in Los Angeles County are obese.

"We started tracking the level of obesity in Los Angeles County in 1997," Fielding said at a press conference. "Over the past 14 years, we have seen this increase in virtually all subpopulations of our county and all regions of the county."

The data, said the director, "suggests a worsening of the epidemic," especially among Latinos.

Nearly 32 percent of Latinos in the county are obese. The same goes for 18 percent of white folks, 31 percent of the black community and nearly 9 percent of Asian people.

But Fielding said the new information "grossly understates the problem" because it doesn't include folks who are overweight, which is a stepping stone to clinical obesity.

When you include those who are overweight: 72 percent of Latinos are obese, as are 70 percent of black people, 52 percent of white people and 42 percent of Asian people.

A few other interesting findings:

– In South Los Angeles, nearly 33 percent of adults are obese. That's the second highest rate in the county, and marks a 36-percent increase in obesity prevalence since 1997.

– More than 32 percent of folks who didn't complete high school were obese, compared to almost 16 percent of people with a college degree.

– People with lower incomes were more likely to be obese: More than 30 percent of people with incomes below the federal poverty level were obese, compared to just 20 percent of people who made at least twice as much as the federal poverty level.

The county's response

Fielding unveiled, along with the new obesity statistics, a new campaign to promote awareness about portion control.

The "Choose Less, Weigh Less" campaign emphasizes that modern portion sizes are way bigger than is healthy and that most adults only need to consume 2,000 calories every day.

Obesity is happening for three reasons, said Fielding. "One, people are eating more," he said. "Two, people are eating more calorie-dense foods. Three, we've become more sedentary."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who chairs of the county's Board of Supervisors, was also present, and recalled the serving sizes of his youth.

"When I was a kid growing here in L.A., McDonald's – which got its start here in Southern California – the only size McDonald's offered in the mid-1950s and the late 1950s for a soda was seven ounces," he said.

Compare that to now, said Yaroslavsky, where the smallest size available is 12 ounces.

"The problem [of obesity] is not only impacting the health and well-being of our residents – it's also impacting our economy," he said, noting that folks who are overweight and obese cost L.A. County $6 billion every year in health care and lost productivity costs.

"Given the high rates of obesity and diabetes, these costs are likely to continue to climb, unless we mount a more vigorous and effective response," Yaroslavsky said.

The Choose Less, Weigh Less campaign's reach will have ads on transit shelters, bus and rail cars, TV, radio and the Internet, and will make heavy use of social media. One ad places two pictures side by side – one of a large, 1,250-calories fast-food meal and the second of a smaller, 680-calorie meal – and implores viewers to go with the second one.

"Obesity is something we can control," said Yaroslavsky. "It's a self-inflicted mistake that society inflicts on itself. It's something we can do something about and it starts with information."

Fielding added that the effort should have a universal appeal, especially given the health problems linked to obesity: diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems, reproductive problems.

"This is something everybody can get behind," Fielding said. "We're not saying you have to change all of your dietary habits, which is hard. Change is difficult; inertia is unfortunately very uncommon. We are saying to eat the same kind of food you're eating – but just ask for smaller amounts."

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