It's called a global obesity pandemic, and the United States is at the epicenter of it, says Dr. David Katz, medical contributor to ABC News and director and co-founder of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University.
"We are a floating sea of dietary troubles in this country," said Katz, one of the featured speakers Wednesday at a health care conference in Kingsport.
"We eat too much, we do too little. That's all there is."
More than 250 people attended the daylong event at the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center. The conference was coordinated by the Regional Education & Action Coalition for Health (REACH) and presented by Wellmont Health System.
Katz said 700 million people around the globe are considered hungry, while more than 1 billion people are now overweight.
In the United States, a whopping 74 percent of adults are either overweight or obese, causing diabetes and heart disease to skyrocket, Katz said.
And the trend has been passed down to the next generation. Katz said the nation is now experiencing an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in children, and diabetes goes hand in hand with heart disease.
He said if the nation remains on its current course, heart attacks in 17-year-olds will be a common occurrence in just a few years.
He asked the audience why an intelligent species would "eat itself to death."
"We have to ask ‘Why?' Why would we allow this to happen," Katz said.
Several audience members voiced their opinions, blaming cultural changes, advertising, fast food, sprawl, and TV and video games.
Katz said people overeat "because we can."
He said 3,800 calories are produced each day for every man, woman and child in this country. The average person should consume about 2,000 calories a day, most nutrition experts agree.
Meanwhile, the average plate size in America has expanded 40 percent since World War II to make way for larger portions, Katz said.
He said society shouldn't lay all the blame on the individual. Instead, society must empower its people with the skills and capacity necessary to make better choices for healthier lifestyles.
Food labels are a good place to start. Katz said the nation must develop food labels that are easy to read and easy to compare one product with another.
He said consumers should not trust package fronts, but should instead, read labels. He noted the first item on the ingredient list is the most plentiful in the product. So if you buy cereal and the label lists the first ingredient as sugar, "you're basically eating candy," Katz said.
He suggested looking for the word "whole" as in whole grains and whole wheat in ingredients. And make sure fiber foods have at least two grams of fiber or more per 100 calories, he said.
Katz said the nation's schools should lead the way in the fight against obesity. He said that 17 percent of American children are considered overweight or obese. But, Katz said, that statistic is misleading. He said adults don't want to label children as overweight or obese, and many kids who should be included in those categories are not.
"But we can't deny the problem," Katz said.
Katz, who lives in Connecticut, has five children, three of whom attend elementary school. At his kids' school, two or three out of five kids are overweight or obese, he estimated.
Katz said parents should get their kids involved in healthy lifestyles early on by sharing information about foods. He said parents can make reading labels a detective game. If a child finds partially hydrogenated oil or high fructose sugar on a label, "step away from the box so nobody will get hurt," Katz said.
Physical activity should also be emphasized for children. Katz has created a program called Activity Burst in the Classroom (ABC) that can help school children release their energies and help teachers teach at the same time. He developed the program after his son, who was 5 years old, couldn't sit still during one of his dad's speeches.
"Children are rambunctious," Katz said. "Rambunctious is normal. Rambunctious should be treated with recess, not Ritalin."
Katz said the ABC program is free and available to anyone who asks for it.
Information is available online at www.davidkatzmd.com.
Katz has developed several programs to help combat the obesity epidemic. Information on those programs is also available at the online address.
"We live in a hostile nutritional environment," Katz said. "We must take arms against it."
After his speech, Katz was asked about the recent food scare. Just last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would begin testing ingredients imported for use in the nation's food supply following news that dogs and cats had died or been sickened after eating contaminated food.
Katz said consumers can help protect themselves by buying locally produced products.
"You've got wheat gluten from China being processed into a gazillion different food products, and if it's contaminated, you're in trouble," he said.
"Buying locally grown foods brings you back closer to home."