Obesity epidemic in the US: What to do?


By Maureen Aylward

One third of Americans are overweight and nearly a third of people under 20 are obese. We asked our Zintro experts to discuss the current leading ideas, approaches, or policies that are being developed to address the obesity epidemic in the US.
Sandra Ham, an expert in epidemiology and obesity, says that the obesity epidemic requires a systems approach because its causes and solutions are interrelated across multiple sectors of society including the food system, schools, the built environment, and healthcare system. “The environment in the US is obesogenic, meaning that it is easier to become obese than to maintain a healthy weight because unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods and physical activity has been engineered out of everyday life, Ham says. “Current leading ideas and approaches target some key interactions between policy, the physical environment, social environment, healthcare system and individual behavior.”

Ham says that childhood obesity is the primary target for several reasons:

  • Overweight and obese kids are more likely to become obese adults than to become healthy weight adults.
  • Research is showing that some obesity-related diseases including type 2 diabetes are more severe and difficult to manage when they occur in youth versus adults.
  • Kids who adopt healthy habits for eating and physical activity are more likely to continue those habits throughout their lives.

“One strategy is to empower youth to make healthy choices that affect their environment. Farm-to-school programs purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers to serve for school breakfasts and lunches. Kids learn about sustainable and local agriculture while also learning how to choose to eat a healthy diet that includes locally-grown foods,” Ham says. “The potential long-term benefits go beyond healthy weight—youth may become more educated consumers with a taste for farm-fresh produce that supports the local and regional economy.”

Another strategy Ham suggests is to promote healthy eating at the policy level. “The USDA recently revised the minimum nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches and is working on standards for snack foods and beverages that are sold in schools outside mealtimes,” she says. “The aim of these policies is to make schools a safe haven from the obesogenic food environment where it is easier for kids to choose to consume healthy foods and beverages than junk foods and sugar-loaded beverages.”

David Koivuranta, an expert in corporate health and wellness, says that quite often the focus is on looking outside ourselves for a solution to weight problems; however, the cause or the source of the obesity epidemic is actually inside of us. “It relates to physical, chemical and emotional stress from our environments that are creating a chronic stress response in our bodies. Because of this, our nervous systems and endocrine systems are stuck in habits and patterns that suppress the immune systems, digestive systems, and reproductive organs. This sets the stage for weight gain that cannot be lost until these underlying problems are addressed,” he says.

Koivuranta explains that a return to lifestyle choices that promote optimum physical, chemical, and emotional well being on a maintenance level will foster an environment in the body that can not only decrease body fat and increase lean muscle, but also heal chronic illnesses and diseases. “There is hope and there is a step-by-step process to get it done. Society can benefit, but it will take a a paradigm shift from our crisis care model of health care to one of prevention and proactive choices that meet our expectations of health, happiness and prosperity in life.”

Karen Russell, a registered dietetic technician and health coach, thinks the obesity epidemic has gotten out of hand. “Diabetes is also on the rise in the US. I see overweight men and women along with their children. The only way to stop this epidemic is to make changes in how we shop, cook and eat,” she says. “Dieting is the old way of doing things and is a negative approach that is temporary most of the time. Dieting is restrictive and unbalanced.

Russell suggests a more positive approach, which is to incorporate small changes in the ingredients used in recipes. “People benefit from learning what to do step by step so changes can be made to live the right way without deprivation or starving. Also getting rid of inflammatory foods so that the digestive system can function at it’s best is best practice and can lead to losing weight,” she says.

What do you think?

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