Jacqueline Wattles photo
Diane Smith, Rebecca Puhl, Mary Kate Lowndes, and Stephen Farrell (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

Diane Smith, an Emmy Award-winning television journalist and a senior producer at Connecticut Network, used her new book “Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction — And My Own”  to start a conversation about the obesity epidemic.

“The odds are stacked against us . . . It is a health crisis,” Smith said Wednesday during a panel discussion on the subject at the Old State House. “The cost of treating conditions that are directly related to obesity . . . can bankrupt our medical system. We need to push this subject out of the closet and put it on the table.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, two out of three American adults are overweight or obese as well as 17 percent, or 12.5 million, children. The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of physicians, announced Tuesday that it now classifies obesity as a disease.

Rebecca Puhl, a research director at Yale’s Rudd Center, Mary Kate Lowndes from the Connecticut Coalition Against Childhood Obesity, and Stephen Farrell, CEO of Unitedhealthcare of New England, joined Smith’s panel.

“I think this is a very positive and important step forward. Declaring obesity as a disease really recognizes that this is both a serious and a chronic condition and my hope is that it will increase access to treatment for people who really struggle with that,” Puhl said.

Smith added that obesity presents untenable healthcare costs. The CDC estimated that healthcare costs for obesity totaled $147 billion in 2008.

Lowndes said the problem needs to be addressed from a young age.

“Children who are obese are 70 to 80 percent more likely to be obese adults than their non-obese peers,” Lowndes said. “We need to be able to help children before they get to the point of being obese.”

Connecticut is taking the challenge seriously.

The Connecticut Coalition Against Childhood Obesity develops a legislative agenda each year. She bragged that, this year, the group was successful in getting the Connecticut General Assembly to approve a bill that requires at least 20 minutes of physical activity per day for grades K-5.

Puhl said that schools can often create a toxic environment for obese children as they endure bullying that tends to perpetuate unhealthy eating cycles and leads to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

“We’ve done a lot of research, even here in Connecticut, and what we have found with adolescents is that they perceive weight-based bullying to be the most common form of bullying at school,” Puhl said. “We need to recognize weight-based bullying is a huge problem and also a barrier in our efforts to treat obesity.”

United Healthcare is a private insurance company looking to help, according to Farrell. The company introduced a pilot program developed by the CDC in partnership with the YMCA to address childhood obesity. The program, called “Join for Me,” aims to address childhood obesity by engaging 6- to 17-year-olds and their parents in a series of informative lectures where they learn about nutrition and proper exercise.

Last January, the company reported that 84 percent of the original 155 participants completed the program and lost an average of 3.5 percent of their excess weight.

The panelists also agreed that America’s “food culture” is a large part of the problem.

“We live in a nation that makes eating hard to control,” Smith said. “I know that no food company forced food down my throat . . . but we don’t eat in a vacuum.”

Changing the culture means lawmakers have to step in, Smith said. An out-of-control food industry is a major contributor to the problem.

“The food industry lobbyists in Washington are controlling our diet more than we are,” Smith said. “[The] government has shelled out $75 billion in subsidies to corn growers in the last 15 years. Those are your tax dollars, and they have made corn so cheap, that the food companies are turning it into all kinds of sweeteners . . . Now, twinkies are cheaper than carrots.”

Puhl, whose research at Yale focuses on effective policies for addressing the obesity problem, agrees.

“Our society couldn’t have done a better job in promoting an environment that creates obesity,” Puhl said. “In this past year alone, 11 states have introduced bills that would tax sugar-sweetened beverages and this comes from an increasing recognition that sodas . . . are a major source of calories in the American diet.”

Puhl said she has also researched food labeling and how the government can monitor labeling to ensure consumers are not mislead by false health claims.

“We have hundreds of thousands of different food products in our country and a lot of them make claims about nutrition and health that are very confusing for consumers and sometimes they’re actually misleading and deceptive,” Puhl said.

Smith hosted the panel to piggyback the release of her book, Obsessed, which she co-authored with MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, her long-time friend.

Click here to read more about the book.