A Body Mass Index (BMI) of greater than 30 classifies you as clinically obese. Greater than 40 and you’re morbidly obese. But is keeping the spotlight on waistlines, whether at the doctor or on the evening news, actually helpful? Does labeling obese people and focusing on fatness keep us healthier?
Obesity Rates Stabilizing
It’s widely accepted that rates of obesity in America have finally leveled off in the past decade (except for Arkansas), with some sub-populations even showing a decline in numbers (thank you, Michelle Obama!). But the reasons why — whether due to changing consumer behaviors or tough economic conditions — have always been hotly debated.
A new, extensive study from The University of North Carolina, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has crunched the numbers and finally settled the argument.
It appears lifestyle changes necessary for obesity rates to plateau were happening well before any economic crises. These findings go against the long-held beliefs of many scholars who attribute stabilized obesity rates to the Great Recession and the year of large increases in food prices preceding it.
Shu Wen Ng, assistant professor of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the study’s first author, said, “We found U.S. consumers changed their eating and food purchasing habits significantly beginning in 2003, when the economy was robust, and continued these habits to the present. These changes in food habits persist independent of economic conditions linked with the Great Recession or food prices.”
Researchers utilised national dietary intake data from the NHANES study, which covered households comprising 13,422 children and 10,791 adults from 2003-2011. Daily food purchases data from the Nielsen Homescan Panel, which contains food purchase data from 57,298 households with children and 108,932 households without children, were also analysed.
Is Childhood Obesity Declining?
The data also show that calories declined more among children than adults.
“Calorie consumption was declining at a rate of about 34 calories less per year among children aged 2-18 between 2003 and 2010 (vs. only 14 kcal/day among adults decline per year). The declines in food purchases after adjusting for all the economic changes was also at a rate of 34 kcal/capita per year among households with children between 2000 and 2011,” said Ng.
It’s worth noting that total caloric decline for children did not happen uniformly.
Barry Popkin, Distinguished Professor of nutrition at UNC Gillings said, “There were no significant declines in caloric intake observed among adolescents (12-18y), non-Hispanic black children and those whose parents did not complete high school. This suggests that certain subpopulations are still unable or unwilling to make these dietary changes.”
Public Health Messages Actually Work
But if the economic crunch is not responsible for this decline in calories purchased per capita and the subsequent healthier food choices, then what is?
Researchers firmly believe these improved eating habits are a direct result of sustained and persistent public health messages aimed at raising awareness about healthy food choices, providing better information on lifestyle changes, and discouraging poor food choices. All public health advocates should give themselves a pat on the back.
And whilst the specific contributors are not quantifiable from this research alone, Professor Popkin suggests that consistent consumer pressure, food industry changes such as low-calorie choices, and the relentless barrage of media attention have all played their part in leveling obesity. To top it all off, the American Medical Association (AMA) have even officially recognized obesity as a disease.
Obese people can be clinically healthy too, and thin people just one more buffalo wing from a heart attack. So is our stern emphasis on waistlines really warranted?
As a health professional, I personally feel that the obsession with weight and obesity (e.g., placing such huge emphasis on the numbers on the scale and the media secretly filming obese people from the neck down, displaying them headless, something I wanted to demonstrate with the feature image above) focuses solely on the superficial aspects rather than underlying health issues. This has far more negative consequences than positive — body image and associated psychological issues are first to mind.
Even if dogged media attention on obesity could be playing a role in lowering obesity rates, perhaps we’re better off promoting health.
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