April 24, 2009

You've heard the scary statistics: Some 64 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Being overweight increases your risk for a host of potentially deadly health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and colon cancer. The cost to the United States for medical care relating to obesity? Nearly $75 billion in 2003.

"If we don't do something now to change the situation, obesity and related diseases could totally alter our health-care system over a very short period of time," says Dixie Stanforth, M.S., a lecturer in the University of Texas at Austin department of kinesiology and health education and a SHAPE contributing editor.

In light of all this, nearly 9,000 of you answered our survey on SHAPE.com last summer about the state of America's waistline and took the time to share details about your own dieting struggles. Here are the surprising things you told us.

Why are we overweight?

No question about it: SHAPE readers believe the responsibility for our country's fat problem rests squarely in our own hands. More than half of you cited poor eating habits as the primary reason we're overweight, while 27 percent told us that too much time on the couch and too little at the gym are to blame. Only 2 percent blamed the marketing of unhealthful foods for excess pounds. "Ultimately, if people are overweight and/or unhappy about their weight, it is their responsibility to educate themselves to change the situation," wrote Kimberly of Charleston, S.C.

Loretta of Southington, Conn., agreed: "The ultimate person to make changes in [your] life is you." That squared with the nearly 61 percent of you who said the single biggest factor that could reverse the obesity trend is individuals choosing to eat less and exercise more.

Tipping the scales

Most of the readers who responded agreed that being overweight or obese today is no fun -- and unfair: Eighty-eight percent said overweight and obese people are discriminated against; 92 percent think people with weight problems are stereotyped as lazy; while 90 percent believe overweight people are seen as lacking in willpower. Cassandra of Royersford, Pa., has experienced the discrimination firsthand: "As a woman who used to weigh over 200 pounds, I can honestly say that obese people are discriminated against in the workplace," she wrote. "[Since] my weight loss I've had co-workers confide in me that they despise obese people."

It's no surprise, then, that excess pounds play a significant role in how we choose our love interests. While 73 percent of you told us you'd date or be in a relationship with someone who was overweight, just as many (75 percent) said you would not be with someone who's obese. Nearly 68 percent rated weight as somewhat important or important to you in terms of dating. Just 4 percent have adopted a "love is blind" credo, claiming the number on your man's scale to be irrelevant.

But there's hope: Ninety-seven percent say they have never ended a relationship because of a partner's weight, and 92 percent can say that they've never had a relationship end because of their own weight. you and your weight Congratulations: Over half of you rate yourselves as being at a normal weight -- way better than the national average! On the other side of the coin, 44 percent of you say you are struggling with a weight problem. Thirty-five percent of respondents would like to lose 5-10 pounds; 24 percent hope to shed 11-20 pounds; and nearly 28 percent are looking to take off more than 20.

Your weight affects your relationships in a big way: Nearly 79 percent of you said you think your weight is important or very important in your attractiveness to the opposite sex; less than 1 percent believe it's not important at all. Almost 56 percent identified it as very important to how beautiful you perceive yourself as being. And your feelings about your weight and your body are even more closely related: Forty-six percent said you've avoided a sexual situation because you were embarrassed about your shape. In fact, being heavy has definitely held you back: Fifty-eight percent said extra weight has curtailed romantic pursuits, while nearly as many (56 percent) told us it's impaired your ability to accomplish goals or participate in life more fully. Twenty-three percent of you feel your career has been adversely affected, and the same number say you've been hurt in friendships owing to weight issues.

Winning the weight battle

In your struggle to lose weight, you have one chief nemesis: finding motivation. Thirty-nine percent said it's your undoing. "I think motivation is a huge part of exercise and dieting," said Angela of Greenville, S.C. "You have to stay disciplined and that is hard in the world today, working 50-plus hours a week." Jennifer of Bremerton, Wash., agreed: "I know so much about what I should do -- sticking with it is the issue."

"The fact that motivation is the stumbling block for so many people, despite the huge cost of being overweight, only attests to the need to make the obesity problem a social issue -- and not just blame the individual for not having willpower," says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of The Origin Diet (Owl Books, 2002) and a Shape contributing editor. "To live healthy requires a monumental commitment to buck the system, so it's no surprise that some people find themselves at a loss to stay motivated."

Despite the effort required, almost all our respondents (95 percent) have dieted. Over three-quarters favor the Shape way of eating (opting for a balanced diet that's low in fat and high in fiber, whole grains, fruits and vegetables). Sixty-five percent cut calories to lose weight; 51 percent have stopped eating fast and processed foods; 48 percent have cut their fat intake; and 37 percent have reduced carbs but don't follow a specific low-carb diet like Atkins or South Beach.

Exercising your options

Weight loss is more than just what you put in your mouth (or don't), of course. "Poor eating habits definitely are a major factor in America's expanding waistline," says Somer. "But it's exercise that repeatedly is shown in research to be the key factor in both weight loss [and in] maintaining the loss for life." Nearly all of you have at one time or another made exercise part of your weight-loss efforts, although a worrisome 41 percent have been known to take pills in pursuit of a slimmer physique. Fortunately, just 13 percent have fasted and only 2 percent have resorted to surgery.

Your goals for weight loss are worthy ones: Thirty-seven percent are in pursuit of good health. Thirty-four percent want to look better; 18 percent think a slimmer body means you'll feel more attractive; and 11 percent want to reduce stress and/or get more energy. Says Somer: "It doesn't matter what the reason for wanting to lose weight, as long as you're doing it for yourself and not for your sister's wedding, a class reunion or because your mate wants you to be thinner."

A number of you brought up the psychological component to shedding pounds: Wrote Amy of Hyannis, Mass.: "I think it's really important that the person wants to lose the weight and addresses other issues that may be leading to weight gain, for example, emotional eating." Physical education expert Dixie Stanforth agrees: "If we could help people embrace what is healthy for her or him and attempt to maximize how she or he is made -- body type, genetics, etc. -- we'd be giving that person a great gift."

No easy answers

Whatever the varied opinions on this difficult topic, one thing is clear: The causes and cures of the obesity epidemic in the United States won't be resolved quickly or simply. "I don't believe that we can pinpoint just one primary reason," explained Camey of Evans, Colo. "This epidemic is multifaceted, and all of these [many reasons] play a vital part in the emergence of overweight/obesity.

Like the editors of SHAPE, many of you are optimistic: "I truly believe that education is the key to [a] healthier lifestyle," said Kelly of Berea, Ky. "But it will take time and commitment on the part of policymakers, educators, health-care providers and the general public."