07/09/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Stepping Up the Fight Against Obesity

For most of us working in the medical field, the recent decision by the American Medical Association (AMA) to label obesity a disease is a long-overdue acknowledgment of the fact that obesity has become one of the greatest health crises of our time.

Nationwide, more than one-third of all Americans are obese. In New York City as of 2011, over 23 percent of adults and over 20 percent of elementary school-aged children were obese, with rates reaching 70 percent in some neighborhoods.

Obesity is about much more than just being overweight. In many cases, it is the direct cause of a host of costly chronic health conditions that we see regularly in our clinics, hospitals, and doctors' offices -- including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. The diabetes epidemic, also a result of Americans' expanding waistlines, is the most rapidly growing chronic disease in our city, with an estimated 1.3 million New Yorkers affected. The prevalence of the disease has increased 13 percent in New York City in the past 10 years alone.

Every year, medical professionals working at Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) like Community Healthcare Network (CHN), which serves some of the poorest residents in low-income neighborhoods in the city, witness the life-changing, devastating impacts of obesity and diabetes. Individuals come to us suffering from symptoms that, if left untreated, can lead to heart disease and stroke, amputation, blindness, kidney disease, damage to the nervous system, and more.

The situation demands action, and both government and health organizations are responding with new programs and initiatives to improve individuals' health outcomes.

The good news is that smart, thoughtful approaches to addressing health problems do work. A study released early this year found that child obesity rates in New York City are declining. Much of the credit goes to New York's pioneering programs that promoted healthy eating among low-income children; as experts pointed out, the results show the importance of a targeted approach that focuses on specific cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

As it becomes ever clearer that we need to change the way New Yorkers of all backgrounds and ethnicities think and behave, not-for-profit health organizations like CHN are stepping up the fight. CHN offers free nutritional and wellness services to our patients; this month, we are launching a nutrition campaign that will expand our reach -- and a message of better health -- beyond the walls of our clinics and into the communities we serve. The campaign includes digital support, print advertising, a healthy cookbook, and more, and focuses on bringing culturally relevant nutrition information into our communities.

It would be futile to expect everyone to abandon their customary diets for kale and bulgur wheat. But even just a modest, sustained change towards healthier eating can be a huge and maybe life-saving step towards a healthier lifestyle. If we work to spread that message beyond our clinics to schools, homes, and the workplace, we will be that much closer to getting chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes under control and to helping New Yorkers live fuller and healthier lives.

The AMA's new designation will not likely have any direct impact on individuals' lifestyles and eating habits, but by rendering obesity an insurable condition, those of us in the medical community can step up the fight against the disease, treating it more aggressively and more proactively than we could have in the past. Our new nutrition campaign is just one of the ways we're stepping up this fight.