The recent four-part HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation” has reignited public discourse over how we can reduce obesity rates. Coinciding with the film’s release was a nearly 500-page report from the Institute of Medicine that offered plenty of solutions – the majority of them governmental.
Can the blunt tool of government solve obesity? We have every reason to be skeptical.
Obesity is a simple math problem – eat and drink more calories than you burn off, and you’ll put on pounds. But the causes are much more complex across society.
A new study I conducted with Lehigh University’s Shin-Yi Chou sheds light on this by finding that there’s no one cause of obesity by a longshot.
Using government body-mass-index data spanning a 27-year period, we analyzed multiple potential factors in the recent rise in American obesity, including food prices, physical activity at work, restaurant prevalence, urbanization, and food stamp receipts.
Based on the current conventional wisdom, you might guess that food prices or restaurant prevalence would affect obesity most. But among the variables we studied, the most significant factor in BMI increases was the decline in smoking. Cigarettes are an appetite inhibitor, and we’ve all heard of people who have gained 10 pounds or so after quitting smoking. But the decline in smoking – the biggest single contributor to the rise in obesity rates – only accounted for about 2 percent of the increase.
The other factors we studied that influenced obesity rates were even smaller. Increased urban sprawl, which can lead to more driving and less walking, accounted for only 0.7 percent of the rise in BMI.
Obesity is the result of overconsumption of calories. And as our research demonstrated, people find a variety of ways to do this.
Consider the soda tax, an IOM-endorsed measure that has popped up in various state legislatures the past few years as a way to ostensibly fight fat (it also helps that it provides revenue to obese bureaucracy). The idea is that making soda cost more will discourage its consumption. It’s a simple enough theory, but studies continue to find that soda taxes won’t have much effect on weight. Why? Because people substitute and start drinking other beverages like milk and fruit juice that have just as many calories as soft drinks.
Simply put, it’s not practical to rely on government to fight obesity. Even if the proposals were promising – and they mostly aren’t – the political system is slow and subject to lobbying and loopholes. (And let’s not forget it was government that ironically pushed the biggest factor contributing to the rise in obesity rates – quitting smoking.)
Instead, change best comes through consumer demand. And demanding healthier foods may not be so difficult. Interestingly, the prevailing “cheap food” narrative as an explanation for obesity now faces further scrutiny. A new USDA study finds that fruits and vegetables actually cost less (by weight) on the whole than “junk” food, meaning there isn’t a barrier to filling up on less calorie-dense food.
Baum, Ph.D., is a professor of Economics at Middle Tennessee State University.
Article source: http://www.inforum.com/event/article/id/365934/group/Opinion/
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We’re heard it before. America is fat! And getting fatter!
So why should you care? According to a new report, the obesity problem is everyone’s problem. After all, almost two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese.
And according to a new study out Monday, the number of overweight people in the U.S. will grow to almost 42 percent of the country by 2030, and cost a whopping $550 billion in obesity-related health care costs per year.
Obesity costs additional billions due to a loss of productivity, and U.S. military leaders have reported being overweight or obese as the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service.
The report out today, “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation,” by the Institute of Medicine — a non-partisan group of thought-leaders — offers recommendations to help solve a real and growing problem.
According to the 478-page report the only way to fight the epidemic is to dramatically overhaul society. That includes action by community members, schools, the food industry, marketers, and the government.
The IOM panel members examined more than 800 previously existing studies and recommendations before issuing their report. Within each “goal” or “category” are strategies to help reduce the epidemic in 10 years.
Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, an IOM committee member and professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said that what this report does is “qualitatively different.”
“It’s not a laundry list. It’s a specific kind of road map and recipe for change,” she said. “We packaged those ‘ingredients’ so we can counter a recipe for what, specifically we should do, where should we put our energy, which things will work together.”
The five basic categories:
- Make physical activity an integral and routine part of life.
- Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine, easy choice.
- Transform messages about physical activity and nutrition.
- Expand the roles of health care providers, insurers, and employers.
- Make schools a national focal point.
In addition, the report adds five “critical environments” they say are in need of urgent reform: physical activity, food and beverage, message, health care and work, and school.
The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) quickly issued a rebuttal of the IOM report, saying it calls for Americans to “actively reduce the number of choices Americans have when they sit down to eat.” The CCF, a non-profit group funded by restaurants and food industries, said the epidemic can be blamed on a “lack of personal responsibility.”
But Kumanyika said that although there is an element of personal responsibility, it cannot be the sole source of blame.
“If so much of population has become overweight it can’t mean there has been a massive individual failure all of a sudden, over the past 20 years,” she said. “You have to say to yourself, ‘Why now? What has caused this?’”
She added that what the report is trying to do, if implemented in its entirety, is support the “personal responsibility” belief by providing people with choices that are “conducive to maintaining their weight.”
Kumanyika added that people have things “stacked against” them when it comes to weight maintenance, including static working environments, food options and availability, and seductive marketing that makes it cheaper and easier to eat poorly.
“If the environment has become so much more challenging then maybe people, in order to exercise personal responsibility, need more support (and) need different choices,” she said.
The IOM is part of the National Academies and offers advice to the government, and others, on health issues. The report was released at the Weight of the Nation conference, a three-day meeting hosted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cable channel HBO will air a four-part, two day documentary of the same name next week. HBO also offers tips on its website for implementing these changes in your community.
Reuters contributed to this report