As if it's not bad enough that many Americans have lost jobs and retirement money to the recession, many of them are getting fatter, too.

According to a Gallup-Healthways poll, the number of people in the U.S. who tip the scales as obese rose 1.7%, or 5.5 million, in the past year. In the first quarter of this year, about 26.8% of Americans were considered obese, which is measured by having a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 30. BMI measures the ratio of height to weight.

While the 1.7% increase may seem small, health experts say this is a significant change. "A 2% increase in BMI is not trivial at the population level," Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University said in a Newsweek article. "This level of increase can have important public health implications for health outcomes such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol."

Treating health conditions related to obesity accounts for about 5% to 7% of annual health costs, or around $100 billion. People who are obese also have a lower quality of life than people who are not obese, the poll found.

A major culprit contributing to folks packing on the pounds seems to be stress about jobs, paying bills, and keeping a roof over their heads. It's commonly known that some people turn to comfort foods when they are stressed, and those comfort foods are more likely to be higher in fat and calories. People who are struggling with their finances may also be more likely to buy processed foods and eat at less expensive fast-food restaurants.

I've heard many people complain that they're tired of hearing health experts go on about eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, because large amounts of those foods just don't fit into their budgets. And don't get me started on the rant one person made about the price of organic produce.

Yes, fresh produce is key to a healthy diet, but until more low- and moderate-income Americans can afford to buy enough fruits and veggies, many of them will probably continue to turn to processed and fast foods, especially when they're stressed. And some people will continue to get whatever vegetables they eat from a can because that's what they can afford.

Maybe as more families experiment with planting vegetable gardens, they'll begin to have better access to fresh produce. Come to think of it, working in the outdoors could also help countless Americans reduce their stress levels and get exercise, helping them avoid gaining weight.


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