Obesity has been very much in the news over recent weeks following the publication of the new US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and research papers published in the Lancet last week (4 Feb), showing that the worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since 1980.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 has quite a focus on tackling obesity, stating that, ’Americans are experiencing an epidemic of overweight and obesity. Poor diet and physical inactivity also are linked to major causes of illness and death.’ The report opens with the suggestion that, ’Eating and physical activity patterns that are focused on consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active can help people attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce their risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.’ The two overarching concepts in the report are to maintain calorie balance over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight and to focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages.
It is interesting to see this increasing focus on obesity. It’s a significant problem across the world — not only in the USA but also closer to home in New Zealand and Australia, as we have seen in figures just reported in the Lancet paper — which received quite a bit of media coverage this week.
So what’s the solution?
I don’t think there is any single answer. As the US Dietary Guidelines report says, ’all sectors of society, including individuals and families, educators and health professionals, communities, organizations, businesses, and policymakers, contribute to the food and physical activity environments in which people live. We all have a role to play in reshaping our environment so that healthy choices are easy and accessible for all.’ I’d certainly agree with that!
Obviously, physical activity and an optimal nutrition intake with an appropriate number of calories is essential, but how do we make the healthier choices easier for people?
Two issues have prompted a lot of recent discussion — food labelling, and the marketing of fast foods to children.
Food labelling has ben very much in the news, following the publication last month of an Independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy, commissioned by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council.
I think this is an important issue as currently food labels are extremely difficult to understand and certainly the people I see in my nutrition clinics are often confused (not to mention the fact you often need a microscope to even read the food label as the writing is so small)! New recommendations out last month attracted a lot of media attention, with many experts from both public health and from the food industry giving their comments and input. A final decision of food labelling changes is likely to happen in December 2011.
Another topic that has gained a lot of attention in recent weeks is the marketing of fast foods to children.
In San Francisco, it has been reported that the happy meal toys will be banned from 2012. And some would argue that happy meals are already illegal. I think banning happy meal toys is a great idea, my kids rarely go to McDonalds (I don’t like the food and actually neither do they) but on the rare occasions they have been (to attend a birthday party) the main attraction has been the happy meal toy. It seems all the kids want to do is to collect these toys — and to do enable them to do this we have to watch them eat food that is high in fat and sugar and of a low nutrient density. I think if the toys were banned we would see a big slump in happy meal consumption.
There has also been discussion recently about Fast Food outlets clustering around schools. A recent University of Canterbury study based on an examination of the clustering of food outlets around schools in Christchurch, Wellington, Lower Hutt, Waitakere and North Shore found that found these types of food outlets were five and a half times more likely to be near schools compared with other areas. Further, the proximity of such outlets was highest around secondary schools, low decile schools and those in densely populated and commercially-zoned areas.
In the battle to combat the obesity epidemic — we should be focussing a significant amount of our attention on our children in the first instance, ensuring they are exposed to healthy food and a healthy environment. Better food labelling would also be an important step forward in improving people’s understanding of what’s in their food. I also think that we all need to work together to solve the obesity problem — Government, health professionals, educators and the food industry – if we are to move forward and reverse this increasing trend.