Obesity: overview of an epidemic.
The obesity epidemic in the United States has proven difficult to reverse. We have not been successful in helping people sustain the eating and physical activity patterns that are needed to maintain a healthy body weight. There is growing recognition that we will not be able to sustain healthy lifestyles until we are able to address the environment and culture that currently support unhealthy lifestyles. Addressing obesity requires an understanding of energy balance. From an energy balance approach it should be easier to prevent obesity than to reverse it. Further, from an energy balance point of view, it may not be possible to solve the problem by focusing on food alone. Currently, energy requirements of much of the population may be below the level of energy intake than can reasonably be maintained over time. Many initiatives are underway to revise how we build our communities, the ways we produce and market our foods, and the ways we inadvertently promote sedentary behavior. Efforts are underway to prevent obesity in schools, worksites, and communities. It is probably too early to evaluate these efforts, but there have been no large-scale successes in preventing obesity to date. There is reason to be optimistic about dealing with obesity. We have successfully addressed many previous threats to public health. It was probably inconceivable in the 1950s to think that major public health initiatives could have such a dramatic effect on reducing the prevalence of smoking in the United States. Yet, this serious problem was addressed via a combination of strategies involving public health, economics, political advocacy, behavioral change, and environmental change. Similarly, Americans have been persuaded to use seat belts and recycle, addressing two other challenges to public health. But, there is also reason to be pessimistic. Certainly, we can learn from our previous efforts for social change, but we must realize that our challenge with obesity may be greater. In the other examples cited, we had clear goals in mind. Our goals were to stop smoking, increase the use of seatbelts, and increase recycling. The difficulty of achieving these goals should not be minimized, but they were clear and simple goals. In the case of obesity, there is no clear agreement about goals. Moreover, experts do not agree on which strategies should be implemented on a widespread basis to achieve the behavioral changes in the population needed to reverse the high prevalence rates of obesity. We need a successful model that will help us understand what to do to address obesity. A good example is the recent HEALTHY study. This comprehensive intervention was implemented in several schools and aimed to reduce obesity by concentrating on behavior and environment. This intervention delivered most of the strategies we believe to be effective in schools. Although the program produced a reduction in obesity, this reduction was not greater than the reduction seen in the control schools that did not receive the intervention. This does not mean we should not be intervening in schools, but rather that it may require concerted efforts across behavioral settings to reduce obesity. Although we need successful models, there is a great deal of urgency in responding to the obesity epidemic. An excellent example is the effort to get menu labeling in restaurants, which is moving rapidly toward being national policy. The evaluation of this strategy is still ongoing, and it is not clear what impact it will have on obesity rates. We should be encouraging efforts like this, but we must evaluate them rigorously. Once we become serious about addressing obesity, it will likely take decades to reverse obesity rates to levels seen 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the prevalence of overweight and obesity remains high and quite likely will continue to increase.
Mitchell, NS; Catenacci, VA; Wyatt, HR; Hill, JO
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