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Susan Yager Headshot

What's Needed to Turn the Obesity Battle Around

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Whatever we have been doing to reverse the obesity epidemic in America clearly has failed miserably. The latest USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report revealed that 35 percent of all the calories we currently consume are from solid fats and added sugars. This is now such a large part of our diet that the USDA has given it an acronym -- SoFAS -- and, by the way, the 35 percent statistic holds for both sexes, and all ages and ethnicities.

Here are the top five sources for calories among adults 19-plus, in order: desserts, yeast breads, chicken and mixed chicken dishes, soda, and alcohol. On April 3, the New York Times said that Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, comprised mainly of microwaveable meals, frozen pizza, and sweet and salty snacks.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) spent close to $1 billion on obesity research in 2010; with good reason considering that last year obesity related diseases cost the U.S. $147 billion in medical spending. "More than a third of adults and nearly 17 percent of children in the United States are obese, increasing their chances of developing health problems including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease and some cancers," according to a recent statement made by the NIH. It goes on to state that they are planning to fund studies to test "new ways" to lose weight effectively.

It is beyond dispute that obesity contributes to all of the illnesses listed by the NIH and more, including back pain, erectile dysfunction, and depression. But is the NIH suggesting that since eating less and moving has been ineffective it is necessary to fund "new" or alternative methods of weight loss, instead of examining why the accepted evidence-based solution has failed? Wouldn't that be putting the funds to better use?

Obesity is a highly unusual disease -- it can be voluntarily reversed -- which is why medical research is divided about whether it really is a disease or just a risk factor. And, although some have suggested a psychological component, obesity will be excluded once more from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Research (DSM-V) when the new edition is published in 2013.

Debates over obesity as disease, or contributing factor to disease, add to the confusion. The main reason that a solution is so elusive, however, is the vast profit being made by various industries that would decrease significantly if we began to eat more nutritious, less highly caloric food. The obesity epidemic benefits big business. This is why an independent organization is mandatory. Privately funded journalists and scientists could look at the epidemic without outside industry pressure. There are so many prime suspects it would become a mystery similar to Agatha Christie's classic Murder on the Orient Express. The difference is, these suspects are all keeping obesity alive and well.

Big Food. Confusing marketing and advertising convince us that bad is good enough and passable is terrific. BF promises us that they are part of the solution with "better for you," "healthy" snacks when more processed snacks are the last thing we need. Meanwhile, fast food chains continue to make cheap, nutritionally devoid, highly caloric products ubiquitous.

Big Pharma. Ironically, a side effect of the considerable advances that have been made to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, is weight gain.* And the search continues for a magic bullet of a weight loss pill, in spite of the fact that to date there has been no efficacious drug, some have caused considerable harm and even death before being taken off the market, and all have required consuming fewer calories.

Big Weight Loss. The obesity epidemic began about 25 years ago. BWL, however, has been pushing non evidence-based solutions for more than 100 years, and with serious intensity for the last 50. Every fad diet, whether in the form of a book, app, or television show, makes things worse. And even the "good guys" aren't helping. For example, David Kirchhoff, President and CEO of Weight Watchers International, recently moderated and co-sponsored a panel discussion at the Library of Congress centered on the history of weight loss, and "the new weight loss strategies under development to help our society achieve and maintain a healthy weight." Since Weight Watchers International would go out of business if this ever happened, one has to question how genuine their concern can be. Two of the four panelists included the general manager of WWI, and the president-elect of the Obesity Society, a group whose main function seems to be lobbying the FDA to approve diet pills.

Big Government. The first lady has the excellent sounding "Healthy Kids Initiative," plants a wonderful garden on the White House lawn, and says: "Let's Move!" All of those things are positive, terrific, and should be applauded. But let's be clear -- the government is still handing out billions of dollars in farm subsidies that distort the price of foods that make kids fatter every year. Republicans and Democrats have joined together to support Big Food and Big Ag for decades, in the form of subsidies that total as much as $30 billion a year.

Big Us. Unless we begin to cook and eat real food, start to move more, refuse to consume processed junk, and reject the latest fad diet, we will just keep getting fatter.

My dream non-partisan Obesity Research Team would help us to reclaim our health, our respect for our food, and our respect for ourselves. Now, who will fund it?

* Yager, Susan, The Hundred Year Diet: America's Voracious Appetite For Losing Weight. New York: Rodale, 2010, p. 193.

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