What do Houston’s mayoral candidates think of our obesity epidemic?


Lan Bensten | September 15, 2015Upcoming debate aims to shed light on public health issues

Man on a scale saying "Lose weight now!"

Upcoming debate aims to shed light on public health issues

The following is a guest blog post by Lan Bentsen, founder and president of Shape Up Houston, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Houstonians get healthy through a free online health tracker and low cost corporate wellness programs. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.

I like to tell my grandchildren that a long time ago, lots of folks used to smoke cigarettes. Just about everyone did it because it was cool. We saw our heroes smoke in movies, billboards, magazine and TV ads – everywhere. It took the loss of many lives, public awareness and strong leadership on behalf of our elected officials and policymakers to convince Americans to “kick the habit,” which in turn saved tens of thousands of lives.

Today it is increasingly rare to see people smoke in public or on TV. In short, smoking is longer considered the norm. Today we need leaders to step forward again and help prompt a similar shift in attitudes about obesity.

Our second-biggest public health issue today is about excessive weight. My goal is to make it second nature to eat smaller, healthier food portions and get regular exercise. I dream of the day when my grandchildren will tell their children stories about the time an obesity epidemic swept the country – costing billions of dollars and millions of lives – as if it were a thing of the distant past.

Is obesity really a public health crisis? You bet it is. And like residents of most U.S. cities, Houstonians are suffering big time. In fact, the severity of the obesity epidemic has actually increased. According to a recent report by Harris County Healthcare Alliance, 64.4 percent of Harris County adults are overweight or obese. Even more alarming, 15.6 percent of high school students in Houston are already obese, and nationally the rate of obese teens has quadrupled since the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Like smoking, this preventable epidemic is costing us billions of dollars in medical spending as overweight and obese individuals develop Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, fatty liver disease and cancer. If this trend continues, the Texas Comptroller estimates our state’s medical costs will increase from $10 billion per year to more than $32 billion per year by 2030, and our life expectancy will decrease for the first time in American history.

This is why Shape Up Houston and Rice University’s Kinder Institute on Urban Research are proudly teaming up to host a 2015 mayoral candidate forum on health and wellness September 17. We’ll hear from all seven Houston mayoral candidates about their ideas on how to solve the obesity epidemic and other challenges related to the health of Houstonians.

We want to know whether the candidates agree there is a public health crisis, and if so, what can they do as the CEO of the fourth-largest city in the country to reverse this deadly and costly trend. We will also want to hear about their commitment to community health, their ideas for addressing food deserts, their thoughts on the city’s air quality and how they’d create a more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly city.

We hope this forum, which will be streamed live online, can serve as a template for other cities around the country who all face similar challenges and want to inject this type of dialogue into local, state and national elections.

While Shape Up Houston is striving every day to get Houston healthier by offering employers an online, low-cost wellness program, we know we don’t have all the answers. I invite you to send us your questions for the mayoral candidates regarding the health and wellness of our citizens by leaving a note in the comments below. We look forward to hearing your thought provoking questions that may lead to effective solutions.

Let’s all us work together – public, private and non-profit – to make the obesity epidemic truly a thing of the past.

Lan Bentsen is the founder and president of Shape Up Houston, which was founded in 2012 with a mission to increase awareness and encourage action around the unsustainable level of obesity and its impact on the health and well being of our community. Shape Up Houston offers free online health trackers to the community and low-cost worksite wellness program to employers. For more information about Shape Up Houston and to sign up for a free online health tracker go to or Facebook.

Houston Mayoral Candidate Forum On Urban Health and WellnessSeptember 17, 2015

Breakfast: 7:00 a.m. to 7:45 a.m.

Forum: 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m.

BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) Auditorium

6500 Main Street

Houston, TX

More information/RSVP

Lan Bensten


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Houston, TX 77005-1892

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