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Obesity can carry 'supersized' issues
Health Summit presented by chamber, Children's
Health WEB
Stephanie Walsh takes questions Wednesday after the 2012 Healthcare Summit at the Forsyth Conference Center. - photo by Autumn Vetter

Obesity can take a huge toll on businesses, according to experts participating in the Forsyth County Healthcare Summit.

Presented Wednesday by the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the event featured three speakers who addressed the problem obesity poses for the workplace, as well as the issue of rapidly increasing childhood obesity in the U.S.

Stephanie Walsh, medical director of child wellness at Children’s, said childhood obesity, which often leads to the problem in adulthood as well, has increased by more than 300 percent in the last three decades.

“We’ve supersized everything,” Walsh told the crowd of about 100 people at the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center. “We’ve supersized our portion sizes and we’ve supersized our kids.”

According to Walsh, the change has occurred slowly over time, just as a person can gain weight slowly.

“It’s like the creep,” she said. “The average American gains between one and one-and-a-half pounds per year after age 20.”

She said adult obesity has also increased greatly over time, with Georgia’s adult obesity rate higher than 30 percent.

No state in the U.S. has an obesity rate of less than 15 percent, she added.  

While people are apt to blame everything from schools and government to fast food and soda for the increased rates in children and adults, Walsh said it is a problem with many causes and high costs.

“Adult obesity costs $190 billion a year in medical expenses in the U.S.,” she said. “And childhood obesity costs $14 billion.”

She noted that in Georgia, hospital costs for obese children are more than $2 million a year.

Adult obesity takes its toll on the work force as well.

She noted that obesity-related absenteeism costs companies in the U.S. more than $4 billion a year.

“In 2030, it’s estimated to be up to $66 billion a year,” she said.

Walsh said prevention is the key to solving the nation’s weight problems.

“Once we’re heavy it’s really hard to get out of it,” she said. “Even the most successful weight-loss programs for adults have only a 5 to 10 percent weight loss.”

She encouraged the audience to be “good health role models” for not just their children but for the community as a whole.

She said that parents who are overweight often have children who are, with the kids having a 50 percent chance of being obese if one parent is, and an 80 percent chance if both parents are.

“We need to help make families healthier,” she said.

Walsh also encouraged business people to be advocates for health in their offices and communities.

“Why is it important?” she asked. “Because healthier people and happier people exercise more and they watch what they eat and they’re immune system is better.

“It’s not that they’re not sad, but there is a true optimism in people who are healthier and that makes a tremendous difference in what they’re able to achieve,” she said.

Valerie Bowers, director of Forsyth County Schools’ food and nutrition program, and Edwin Foulke Jr., an attorney with Fisher & Phillips LLP, also spoke.

Bowers discussed some changes the school system has made in recent year to provide more healthful choices to students, such as more salads and other fresh fruits and vegetables, and lower fat and sodium options.

Foulke discussed the importance of businesses providing “true wellness plans” to employees to encourage healthful habits.