The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Spotlight on Obesity in 2011

Spotlight on Obesity in 2011

Health and Wellness

January 30, 2011

During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32.2% of adult men and 35.5% of adult women in the U.S. are currently obese. Also obese are 12.4% of children aged 2 to 5, 17% of those aged 6 to 11 and 17.6% of those aged 12 to 19. One in 7 low-income, preschool-aged children are obese as well. Only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20% in 2009. 

Clearly, obesity is an issue that threatens the health of our nation – and it’s expensive. The CDC estimates that medical expenses related to obesity may have accounted for $92.6 billion in 2002, and those costs are rising. The First Lady’s “Let’s Move” program could mark 2011 as the year that finally empowers Americans to make permanent, positive changes in their diets. But what other trends are on the horizon for fighting obesity in 2011?

Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell is the Director of Community Voices & Men’s Health Initiatives at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. She says that for the food and nutrition industries, the fight against obesity in 2011 will be focused primarily on reducing sugar and salt in their products. These same industries will be more focused on marketing to new groups in ways that appeal to culture and foods that are popular. The goal will be to make the sale while making the product more appropriate for an era where weight and nutrition are important. 
School nutrition is next on the list of items that will likely change in 2011. For example, reduction in access to sugary beverages will hopefully be replaced by the industry with healthier beverages for purchase. Other changes will be seen in the built environment to support walking and exercise, often through the building of parks. In addition, Treadwell expects that incentives will be increased for stores that do not traditionally offer fresh fruits and vegetables to carry these in neighborhoods that are either food deserts or that have some limitations in access to nutritious foods.

“I hope to see some greater attention again to physical education in the schools. Dieting and controlling caloric intake alone will not shed the excess pounds. Also, community gardens and incentives to form these would be a strong plus in many neighborhoods where there is little likelihood of a grocery locating to serve the community,” she says.
There are many stumbling blocks to empowering people to eat less, including poverty, lack of access to healthy foods and problems in the built environment. Another stumbling block is educating the public about focusing on the health benefits of eating the right foods in the right amount – and not about looking better by maintaining a healthy weight. Poor families face many stumbling blocks too because they may have less time to prepare more calorie conscious meals.

“Eating less and eating more healthy food is a choice. Some individuals simply feel that circumstances beyond their control limit or curtail their ‘choice’ of what and when to eat,” says Treadwell.   

When it comes to obesity and minorities, Treadwell says that there is an overemphasis on cultural habits or traditional foods as the culprits. Those foods did not give rise to generations past that were unhealthy, she says. Rather, it is the overutilization of drive-throughs and other fast foods. Many lower income neighborhoods are food deserts, and people in these communities have limited access to healthy foods.

Ultimately, says Treadwell, to fight obesity, food retailers must carry appropriate foods, particularly in poor neighborhoods, as surveys of stores in poor neighborhoods find that it is difficult to find low-calorie products. Food retailers can also work with agribusiness and others to do food demonstration preparations using different foods that may not traditionally be eaten in a neighborhood. 

Moreover, nutrition educators can do excellent work in teaching individuals how to prepare wonderful food that tastes good in ways different from traditional preparation. Food festival weekends when recipes and samples are available can help. And, both the man and the woman of the house must be encouraged to handle the fight against obesity. 

“Food retailers and nutrition educators should be assigned to work in communities where obesity levels are high, along with poverty. The solutions must be taken to the communities where the problems exist,” Treadwell adds.

Dr. Treadwell is Director and Senior Social Scientist for Community Voices of Morehouse School of Medicine and Research Professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine. Her major responsibilities include program oversight and management for Community Voices: Healthcare for the Underserved, a special informing policy initiative that is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She has been featured on many major media outlets such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight and the Campbell Brown show.