The solution to obesity

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I’m kidding. I don’t have “the solution” to obesity, but I’ve been thinking recently about how we frame the debate about solutions. This was sparked in part by New York Times article by Anahad O’Connor earlier this week about a new Coca-Cola-funded nonprofit called the Global Energy Balance Network, “which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.”

This is a tricky topic for a number of reasons. The scientists involved in GEBN are well-respected - people like Steven Blair, James Hill and Gregory Hand - and I tend to agree with their belief that changing patterns in physical activity play a big role in the increased prevalence of obesity and other health problems. But letting that message get co-opted by Coke, which likes it for obvious reasons of its own, is problematic. And I’m also puzzled by their apparent reduction of the debate into an “either/or” question, as if diet and physical activity can’t both be important.

It seems clear to me that rising obesity rates around the world aren’t the result of one single factor, and won’t be cured by one simple fix. Instead, we have to look more broadly at a variety of factors. Here are two good takes to check out:

(1) UPEI researcher Travis Saunders of Obesity Panacea looks at possible contributors to childhood obesity in developed countries, and zeroes in on four major factors (sugar-sweetened beverages, sedentary behavior/screen time, lack of sleep and adult obesity) along with several other possible risk factors.

(2) Mayo Clinic researcher Michael Joyner, along with colleagues from the University of Arizona, presents “A Roadmap to Better Health.” This is a PowerPoint-style booklet with lots of charts and interesting nuggets of data that tries to pin down the main determinants of “healthspan” (the period of life free of chronic diseases), and offer potential solutions.

The key point is that individual behavior makes a big difference, so we should look at the various ways we can “nudge” people’s behavior with respect to issues like smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Those nudges might be environmental (play areas and PE in schools, rethinking urban design), economic (sin taxes, health insurance premiums ties to physical activity) or educational.

None of these initiatives, on their own, will “cure” obesity - and that’s the point Joyner and his colleagues are trying to make. We need to get away from the endless argument about which single villain we can blame the obesity crisis on, and think carefully about the whole structure of our modern lifestyle.