I have written on the health issues caused by obesity many times in this space. It’s hard to talk about issues related to health and not reference this growing global problem. So when headline-grabbing news on the issue was released this past week, it was hard to ignore and impossible not to comment.
According to a paper published in the current edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, a staggering one-third of world’s population is now overweight. The study reveals the number of obese people has doubled since 1980 in 73 countries. The U.S. is at the head of the pack with more than two-thirds of Americans now overweight or obese. Despite all efforts to confront this growing worldwide health crisis, the problem is on the rise across most countries studied.
According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, whose researchers led the study, more than 2 billion adults and children globally are overweight or obese and suffer health problems because of their weight. According to the report, the United States has the greatest percentage of obese children and young adults at nearly 13 percent of the population. Across the globe, the rate of obesity is increasing faster among children than adults.
The authors of the study have deemed excess body weight as “… one of the most challenging public health problems of our time.” The study points out that an increasing number of people globally are dying from health problems linked to being overweight. Of the 4 million deaths attributed to being overweight in 2015, nearly 40 percent were not considered clinically obese. According to their analysis, deaths are occurring almost as often in those considered overweight as those considered obese. In addition to highlighting the scale of the global obesity epidemic, the researchers hope to raise awareness of the diseases linked to being overweight that can prove fatal, specifically cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“People who shrug off weight gain do so at their own risk. …” noted Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who worked on the study.
According to the study findings, changes in the food environment and food systems are likely the major drivers of the growing epidemic. They note factors such as the increased availability, accessibility, and affordability of certain foods, as well as the intense marketing of such foods, as key factors. They also see reduced levels and opportunities for physical activity as also potential causes, but add that these are “unlikely to be major contributors.” The problem is also not seen as simply an issue of income or wealth.
While the authors stress the need for intervention, they also admit that it’s not clear what can be done.
Current strategies at play include restricting the advertisement of unhealthy foods to children, improving school meals, even using taxation to reduce consumption of unhealthy foods. At the same time, countries have also tried providing subsidies to increase intake of healthy foods, as well as using supply-chain incentives to increase the production of healthy foods.
“Over the past decade, numerous interventions have been evaluated, but very little evidence exists about their long-term effectiveness,” said Dr. Ashkan Afshin, assistant professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who led the research.
Meanwhile, the search continues to find innovative good holistic strategies – beyond medical guidance and treatment – to improve the way people eat and move and to restore good health.
One pilot program that has shown positive results comes from the Harvard University Department of Nutrition and is based on a curriculum used in Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, an annual educational conference offered by the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America.
The program centers around Teaching Kitchens, described as a kind of cooking laboratory that combines culinary instruction using healthful whole ingredients, nutrition education, exercise, mindfulness, and personalized health coaching. Whereas the Healthy Kitchens conference is targeted at educating health professionals, the current study is focused on office workers and the implementation of Teaching Kitchens in a workplace setting.
Participants were enrolled in the intervention for 14 or 16 weeks. It involved culinary demonstrations, hands-on culinary lessons and interactive lectures on nutrition, mindfulness, and movement. There were no restrictions on amount of food eaten. Participants also received access to a local gym and a personal activity-tracking device to increase their physical activity. They were also matched with a professional health coach who provided 30-minute phone calls once a week throughout the duration of the study. Positive behavior changes included weight loss, cooking meals from scratch at home more often, relying on ready-made meals less often, reading nutrition labels on purchased foods more often, and feeling more confident in cooking.
Dr. David Eisenberg, Director of Culinary Nutrition at Harvard Chan’s Department of Nutrition reports that the results of this pilot study suggest that the Teaching Kitchen model is feasible and they are now in the process of being proposed and implemented across a range of organizations – from universities, hospitals, corporate worksites, and retirement communities. Work is also underway to tailor the curriculum to different community and socioeconomic settings, and for various high and low-risk populations.
As promising as it is, it represents but one small step forward in combating an issue we need to work on as if our lives and those of people the world over depended upon it.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.