You can’t go a day without hearing a doom and gloom headline about America’s growing obesity problem. From studies on overweight newborns, to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s recent prediction that by 2030 adult obesity rates in the U.S. could hit 60 percent in 13 states, Americans are obsessed with obesity.
And yet…we keep getting fatter.
Recently, Andy Bellatti, a registered dietician and creator of Small Bites, wrote an article for the Huffington Post that argued a new point in our raging obesity debate. Bellatti asserted that instead of inspiring us to fight the fat, our non-stop discussion on obesity is having the opposite affect and leaving out one of the main causes of this growing problem.
As a nutrition professional, I am discouraged and frustrated by the endless banging of the obesity drum (whether by health conferences, extreme weight-loss shows, or fearmongering headlines). Despite the good intentions by many to increase awareness of the fact that Americans are getting sicker, this focus is erroneous and plagued with problems that actually impede the process of the health movement.
When obesity becomes the focal point of a discussion on public health, it opens the door for tired, clichéd, and “blame the victim” arguments (“Americans are lazy,” “Get off the couch and put the potato chips away!” or “Is it really that hard to eat more fruits and vegetables?”). Very little thought is given to socio-political and environmental factors that pose a threat to our health (more on those in a bit).
If obesity is “the problem,” then what is the solution? A population that is of normal weight? I won’t deny that some medical and health risks increase with obesity, but it is possible to be at a “healthy weight” while subsisting on minimally nutritious foods.
Thinness does not mean one eats enough fiber, gets a sufficient amount of minerals from their diet, or limits added sugars. In my nutrition career, I quickly learned from working with patients that size doesn’t tell the tale. I can think of many overweight individuals with great blood glucose and blood pressure numbers, and several thin individuals with poor dietary habits who presented with hypertension and pre-diabetes.
And, while many people rang the alarm this week with obesity predictions, they may have missed out on a much more important article in this week’s New York Times on how fitness is much more important than weight.
Bellatti raises some excellent points. Lost in the discussions around obesity is a larger dialogue about the factors that lead to the problem.
While the majority of the debate centers on personal responsibility, the link between poverty and obesity is rarely discussed. However, there is a direct correlation between poverty rates and obesity. Why? Processed food high in fat, sugar, and artificial chemicals are often times cheaper and more accessible than fresh foods.
The health blog Modern Health Talk breaks it down:
- Public health officials can accurately predict obesity and longevity rates by zip codes. One inner city example had an average lifespan of just 64 years versus 90 years for a wealthier neighborhood 8 miles away.
- Disadvantaged communities are at higher risk for many preventable health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis B and C, and infant mortality.
- That’s partially due to the lack of fresh and nutritious food at affordable prices and the lack of sidewalks and parks that encourage exercise.
- Pressures from Job, Money, Divorce and Violence cause a vicious cycle of Stress = Obesity = Stress … (Exercise helps relieve that stress.)
And while food and drink companies are often left off the hook for America’s exploding obesity epidemic, their profits have continued to increase because they’ve been selling unhealthy, chemically-laden products to the populace.
So what’s the solution?
Bellatti argues that we must begin to take a holistic approach to the problem. Instead of just viewing obesity in terms of individuals, we have to get serious about advocating for fresher foods in all neighborhoods, realign agricultural policy so it falls in line with nutritional policy, and institute tougher regulations on food corporations and their caviler use of genetically modified foods.
As the HBO documentary ‘Weight of the Nation’ pointed out, the fight against obesity is complex, but it’s also conquerable.