It's obvious that society's obesity problem is getting worse when Santa Claus is trying to lose weight — during the Christmas season, no less.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — It’s obvious that society’s obesity problem is getting worse when Santa Claus is trying to lose weight — during the Christmas season, no less.

“I need to be around for a while,” George Robert “Bob” Teel said, in explaining the reason behind his quest to lose about 50 pounds.

This is the 20th year that Teel, 68, a retired state worker and former Parkway Church of Christ minister, has portrayed Santa in a variety of settings throughout the Springfield area.

Standing 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing about 300 pounds, Teel said his real beard and lack of need for padding help him present a convincing image of St. Nicholas for children and adults alike. He definitely has perfected the “Ho, ho, ho!”

Teel said he doesn’t charge a set fee to don the costume and persona. He only accepts donations.

“Santa does OK,” he said.

Teel said he looks forward to playing Santa every year, even after his wife of 42 years, Linda Teel, who played Mrs. Claus for 15 of those years, died from brain cancer in 2012 at age 62.

“I love to see the joy in the eyes of the children,” he said.

But Teel, a Chatham resident, knows he has a family history of heart problems. His father died from a heart attack at age 67 in southern Illinois.

Teel’s own heart problems became obvious in 1991. He has had 10 different heart procedures — including angioplasty and the insertion of nine coronary artery stents — since then, he said.

He takes medicine for high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. He said he hit his highest weight, 335 pounds, a few years ago.

Teel said his diabetes was getting worse this fall when a nurse practitioner, Melanie Reynolds, who works in the office of his physician, Dr. Nicole Florence, suggested that he seek help from the Memorial Weight Loss and Wellness Center.

Teel said he wants to be alive and relatively healthy so he can spend as much time as possible with his 85-year-old mother, his grown son and daughter, and his two grandchildren and foster granddaughter, all of whom live in the Springfield area.

He started going to the weight loss center, which operates out of two Springfield locations, in October.

Teel said fast food and fried foods have been his downfall in the past.

When he visited with the center’s nutritionist, he said, “She destroyed everything I was doing.”

Teel said the center’s professionals, including Florence, who is its medical director, helped him focus on eating better and practicing calorie control that allows him to occasionally enjoy a McDonald’s McGriddle sandwich.

“I’ve lost about six pounds so far,” he said.

Florence said Teel appears to be on the right track and is benefiting from the center’s team approach.

Weight loss can improve blood pressure and virtually eliminate diabetes symptoms, she said. It also can reduce health risks associated with heart disease, she said.

The nationwide obesity epidemic has made Santa’s classic body type less of a rarity, Florence said.

“It used to be Santa Claus was the only big, jolly person in the room,” she said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Indeed, about 30 percent of American adults and 32 percent of adults in Illinois are obese, while 35 percent of adults nationwide and 33 percent in Illinois are overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 1990, obese adults made up less than 15 percent of the population in most U.S. states, and obesity is on the rise among children.

Obesity — defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 — was even rarer in the mid-1800s, according to health experts. That’s when American cartoonist Thomas Nast’s published drawings helped to define the full-bodied image of Santa in the minds of Americans, according to historian Edward O’Donnell, an associate professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

At that time, the description of Santa in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem of Santa as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” as well Santa’s profile in Nast’s drawings, aligned with most Americans’ views of extra weight being associated with “prosperity and genial character,” O’Donnell said.

Times have definitely changed, O’Donnell said.

A total of three Santas have sought help from the Memorial weight loss center the past few years, Memorial Health System spokesman Michael Leathers said.

For Teel, the Christmas season actually is a good time to lose weight because he is so busy with gigs as Santa.

He’s constantly moving, and even though he is often offered lots of sweets at these events, he declines.

“I don’t like to eat in my Santa costume,” he said. “I don’t want to get stuff on it.”

When he gets home, he often will enjoy carrots and dip and a nutritious meal delivered from the online service Freshly.com. He also is tracking what he eats.

“I’ve not felt deprived,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Teel doesn’t sometimes succumb to high-calorie foods, he said.

Teel is looking forward to January, when he hopes to exercise more regularly.

“This time, it seems like I’m making progress,” he said.

Even if he is able to lose 50 pounds, he said he will continue to play Santa, ample stomach and all.

“I can always pad if have to,” he said.

Dean Olsen is a reporter for The Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register.