I’m getting caught up on my journal reading and didn’t want to miss this one.
Here are some selections:
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I’m getting caught up on my journal reading and didn’t want to miss this one.
Here are some selections:
The latest obesity statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show no change over the last several years in either adults or children. No change is good news.
For adults in 2009-2010 the prevalence of obesity was 35.5% among men and 35.8% among women. Obesity, in these surveys is defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or greater than 30.
This represents no significant overall change compared to rates in 2003-2008.
Going back to 1999, however, obesity rates increased significantly among men in general, and among black (non-Hispanic) and Mexican-American women in particular. In more recent years, the rates among these groups leveled off.
For children and adolescents in 2009-2010 the prevalence of obesity was 16.9%. For this group, obesity is defined as a BMI at or greater than the 95th percentile of weight for height.
This represents no significant change compared to rates in 2007-2008, but with one exception: the rate of obesity among adolescent males aged 12 through 19 increased.
For decades, rates of overweight and obesity in the United States stayed about the same. But in the early 1980s, rates increased sharply and continued to increase through the 1990s.
The increases correlated closely with deregulatory policies that encouraged greater farm production and loosened restrictions on food marketing. These led to an increase in the number of calories available in the food supply, pressures on food companies to sell those calories, a proliferation of fast food places, and marketing strategies that made it normal to drink sodas all day long, and to eat everywhere, at all times of day, and in larger portions.
Why are obesity rates leveling off now except among boys? Nobody seems to know.
I can make up several reasons, all speculative (and I have my doubts about most of them).
Anyone have any better ideas? It would be good to figure out the reason(s) as a basis for more sensible public policy.
The amazing New York City Health Department, almost unique in its interest in public health and willingness to do what it can to improve the health of New Yorkers, adds another campaign to its collection of hard hitters. This one is on the need to reduce portion sizes.
The subway campaign posters in Spanish and English. Here’s an example in Spanish.
I especially like this campaign because much of the work on increasing portion sizes in the food supply was launched by my former doctoral student, now Dr. Lisa Young. See:
Larger portions do three things:
All of these induce people to eat more than they need or should.
The expansion of portion sizes alone is sufficient to explain rising rates of obesity.
The Health Department’s campaign makes sense. Let’s hope it helps.
Update, January 10: The American Beverage Association doesn’t like the ads much, according to Crain’s:
Portion control is indeed an important piece of the solution to obesity,” said said Stefan Friedman, New York spokesman for the American Beverage Association, in a statement. “But instead of utilizing scare tactics, the beverage industry is offering real solutions like smaller portioned containers and calorie labels that show the number of calories in the full container, right up front, to help people chose products and sizes that are right for them and their families.
And if you think the New York City ads are tough and hard-hitting, try these “Strong4Life ads from the state of Georgia. Shocking people out of complacency? Or just shocking?
Update, January 25: The New York Times reports that the shocking photograph of an overweight man with a leg amputation was “photoshopped” from a stock photo.
This is unfortunate, as it opens the Health Department up to unnecessary criticism:
The American Beverage Association, which opposes the city’s efforts against sodas and fast food, called the advertisement overwrought. “This is another example of the ‘What can we get away with?’ approach that shapes these taxpayer-funded ad campaigns,” Chris Gindlesperger, the association’s director of communications, said in a statement.
I subscribe to The Lancet, and always enjoy reading its editor’s weekly Offline column. In October, editor Richard Horton wrote about how government obesity policy needs to be based firmly on scientific evidence.
And what is that evidence?
On this question, the evidence is utterly clear. Thanks to the work of the best scientific minds in obesity research, the most reliable evidence shows that the government’s plan should include taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, front-of-pack traffic-light nutrition labeling, reductions of junk food and drink advertising to children, and school-based programmes to reduce television viewing and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption (Lancet, 2011;378:1451).
If you care about public health evidence, that’s what it shows. But doing these things goes against the business interests of food companies and they are doing everything they can to oppose such science-based measures.
In the U.S., the Sunlight Foundation has just released a report detailing the amounts of money food companies have spent on lobbying to block federal attempts to set nutritional standards for marketing foods to children (see previous posts).
Big companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Viacom, McDonalds, General Mills, and Time Warner have indicated on official reports that they have lobbied on the controversial proposed guidelines; all together such companies have reported spending more than $37 million on lobbying this year.
The Sunlight report lists reported lobbying expenses (for example, Coca-Cola $4.7 million, General Mills $660,000). It also points out that
…Over all public relations were handled by Anita Dunn, formerly communications director at the Obama White House, at the firm SKDKnickerbocker Consulting.
Anita Dunn is of special interest because of her previous position at the White House. Now she’s working for the not-so-loyal opposition. Marian Burros reported on this switch for Politico:
Dunn, who served as White House communications director, is a senior partner at SKDKnickerbocker Consulting, which is handling public relations for the food industry’s campaign. Switching sides isn’t uncommon in the incestuous world of Washington consulting and lobbying, and the food industry coalition seeking to scuttle the voluntary guidelines argues that they are actually enforceable regulations in disguise that could lead to billions in lost sales.
Dr. Horton’s comments in Lancet imply that the British government isn’t doing much better.
As for the European Union (EU), Food Chemical News reported on December 8 that major food companies— McDonald’s, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kellogg, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, as well as the European Snacks Associations—have just pledged to promote only healthful products on their websites aimed at children under age 12.
By “healthful,” they mean products that meet “better-for-you” criteria. Food Chemical News cites a study suggesting that European children now see 79% less advertising of really bad junk foods on kids’ TV than they did in 2005, and 29% less across all TV programs.
The study did not say whether sales of those products were down too. If not, this could explain the willingness of companies to extend the voluntary restriction to websites aimed at very young children.
All of this would be much simpler for parents if governments paid attention to the research. If they did, they would:
Taken together, these might actually make some progress in reducing childhood obesity.
The UK Government has “quietly disbanded” its independent advisory group on obesity. Apparently, it didn’t like the advice it was getting.
The firing is quite understandable. The group was appointed by the previous government as a result of recommendations in what is known as the Foresight report: Tackling Obesities: Future Choices. This report advised mapping out strategies for obesity interventions that went way beyond education about personal food choices.
The expert group followed this advice and recommended public health programs to change the food environment and counter food industry marketing.
The new government, however, prefers a “nudge” strategy. Derived from behavioral economics, “nudge” involves no compulsion (e.g., taxes on junk foods). Instead, people are free to follow advice to eat better but don’t have to.
Thus, the government’s Call to Action on Obesity in England focuses on individual responsibility and says nothing about the influence of food and drink marketing on food choices.
Two members of the expert committee, Goeffrey Rayner and Tim Lang, have publicly criticized “nudge” as “a smokescreen for inaction.”
No wonder the group was fired.
But as Professor Lang explains:
The closure of the expert advisory group is bad news all round: bad politics, bad policy, and bad science. It shuts the door on an important attempt by the state to recognise the systemic nature of what drives obesity…It’s plain as a pikestaff that obesity requires systems change, not a tweak here and there, yet that is what is being offered.
Doing something about obesity requires eating less and eating better, both very bad for business. For this UK government, business interests trump those of public health.
I subscribe to a weekly or so news feed from the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) in the U.K. (to sign up, contact email@example.com).
Here are some of the items from the October 27 feed:
It’s a good way to keep up on the sugary drinks controversy, if nothing else.
Here are some of the latest reports on how food marketing influences eating patterns and obesity.
American University’s Kogod School of Business publishes a business magazine, Kogod Now. It latest CoverStory takes a tough look at at how targeted marketing of foods and beverages contributes to the obesity crisis, especially among minority children and adolescents.
Cornell University’s Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink ask the question, “is food marketing making us fat?” Their review of the research leads them to conclude that a “small steps” approach ought to help reverse obesity. Recent analyses, however, suggest that reversing overweight is likely to take a lot more than small steps, but it’s worth reading what they have to say about marketing practices.
Two reports from Canada indicate that industry self regulation has little effect on actual food industry marketing practices. Instead, banning the marketing of junk foods, as has been accomplished in Quebec, works somewhat better.
The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a look at how television watching affects obesity in children. If kids watch a lot of TV–and they have a TV set in their bedrooms—they are at high risk of becoming obese. The obvious conclusion? Get rid of the TV!
It is heartening that so much of the research on obesity these days focuses on changing the food marketing environment. Now if policymakers would just pay some attention!
My mailbox is overflowing with new reports and commentary about obesity. Here are some examples:
State medical expenses: The journal, Obesity, has an analysis of the cost of obesity to states. Obesity costs states an additional 7 to 11% in medical expenses. Between 22% (Virginia) and 55% (Rhode Island) of state costs of obesity are paid by taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation series on preventing childhood obesity:
From the Campaign to End Obesity:
Obesity Rates Projected to Soar, ABC News, 8.25.11: Will half the U.S. population be obese by 2030? The current trajectory would see 65 million more obese adults, raising the national total to 164 million. Roughly one-third of the U.S. population is currently obese.
In U.S., Obesity Rates Remain Higher Than 20% in All States, Gallup, 8.25.11: Colorado continues to be the state with the lowest obesity rate in the country, at 20.1% in the first half of 2011. West Virginia has the highest obesity rate in January through June 2011, at 34.3%, which is also the highest Gallup has measured for any state since it began tracking obesity rates in 2008.
Reversing the obesity epidemic will take time, LA Times, 8.26.11: The old rule that cutting out or burning 500 calories a day will result in a steady, 1-pound-per-week weight loss doesn’t reflect real people, researchers say. For the typical overweight adult, every 10-calorie-per-day reduction will result in the loss of about 1 pound over three years.
I’ve commented on some of these in previous posts. If you find the avalanche of studies overwhelming, you are in good company. I do too, but will summarize my take on the literature in my forthcoming book with Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, due out from University of California Press in March 2012. Stay tuned.