The obesity rate in Huntington, W. Va. is nearly double the national average, which is why celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is hosting a reality show that will challenge the town's residents to lose weight.
While dietary experts say Oliver's efforts can't hurt, they also caution that expecting residents of Huntington to make huge changes to their diets in a very short period of time could set them up for disappointment.
Here's what Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, says obese people need to do if they want to achieve lasting weight loss:
Make three small lifestyle changes. And they must be unique, because not everyone struggles with the same demons when it comes to obesity.
“Anything that is too depriving for most people just won’t stick,” says Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think”
“Most people get stuck in a pattern, which is how they end up overweight in the first place. And we’ve found that for a huge percentage of people, even if they make a positive change, most will slip back. So what we suggest is that they make three very small changes and then they never have to think about it again.”
Just losing a single pound in a month could be enough to motivate residents of Huntington to slim down. But encouraging people to switch from potato chips to fruits and vegetables often fails, as does rapid weight loss, which can cause a rebound effect where people's resistance crumbles, their metabolism slows and they actually end up gaining more weight than they lost.
“The average person can’t eat 300 to 400 calories less per day without physiologically and psychologically noticing it,” Wansink said. “But 200 to 250 fewer calories can be done and it can be done quite easily.”
About 26 percent of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But nearly half the adults in Huntington's five-county metropolitan area are obese.
Huntington has the highest rate in the U.S. in a half-dozen illnesses, including heart disease, which affects 22 percent of its adults, and diabetes, at 13 percent.
But does it need a reality show?
“I think the goal of this program is to really address a national epidemic that has occurred in the United States — where two out of three Americans are overweight — and out of those two people, one is clinically obese,”dietitian and creator of the F-Factor Diet, Tanya Zuckerbrot told FOXNews.com.
“What the show is trying to point out is the issue of being overweight goes way beyond aesthetics," Zuckerbrot continued. "The truth is, being overweight increases a person’s chances of morbidity. It increases risks of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, adult on-set diabetes, certain forms of cancer and overall decreases a person’s quality of life.”
The Cost of Obesity
Obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of all medical spending in the U.S., according to the CDC. That’s equal to about $147 billion a year.
Furthermore, a CDC study found that obese people spend about 40 percent more per year on medical costs than people considered to be at normal weight.
Huntington has a population of 51,475 people. Of those, 42,344 are over the age 18. Using the CDC analysis that obese people spend an average of $1,429 more than normal weight individuals, that would mean the city spends about $30.3 million per year on medical expenses related to its 21,172 obese adults.
But it’s not too late for Huntington residents to turn things around.
“If a person eats just 200 calories less a day, that’s a 20-pound weight loss for the year,” said Wansink, whose Web site www.mindlesseating.org helps people determine what small things they’re doing each day to sabotage their eating habits. “And they can do that by changing to a smaller size plate – not too small or they’ll end up going up for seconds and thirds and ninths. But again, coming up with those three small changes, whether it’s rearranging your cupboards or keeping the serving dish off the table or even changing your lighting, can have a ripple effect down the road.”
In addition to making small changes to their eating habits, Huntington residents can also make small changes to their lifestyles.
“If for instance, they say I’m going to try and walk a mile and a half each night after dinner, they can do that 11 months out of year, whereas in the Northeast (because of the weather), we can’t,” Wansink added.
Zuckerbrot said residents should embrace the opportunity the show is giving them.
“I think this community should embrace this opportunity to switch around this “fattest city” label," she said, "and end up as one of the healthiest cities in the U.S. – a destination for people who want to live and want to raise their families. This label is a harsh reality – but with that label –comes awareness and change.”
Karlie Pouliot contributed to this story.