Weight of the Nation – Moving Forward, Reversing the Trend

I was fortunate enough to attend the Weight of the Nation conference that was held this month in Washington, DC.  This national conference was hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and attended by 1,200 thought leaders from across the country including public health experts, federal state and local policy makers, program managers, educators and health professionals.  The objective of the conference was to review the status of obesity prevention efforts, get updates on the latest research findings and highlight programs and efforts that are working across the country. There was a special focus on the alarming increase in childhood obesity throughout the conference.

The sad truth is that over two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of children are overweight or obese. Chronic disease, diabetes, heart disease, cancers and other serious health problems are all associated with excess weight. The economic costs to our nation are staggering – both in direct health care costs and lost productivity. And it is widely believed that this may be the first generation where children may not live as long as their parents!

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that the trends are beginning to level off and the experts even point to a few new studies that actually show slight decreases in data. But there is still a long way to go.  The CDC wants to shine the light on programs that are making a difference.  Making a difference will require changes to societal norms, similar to changes that had to happen to encourage Americans to use seat belts and quit smoking, and it’s clear that a strong focus on getting children to start healthy habits early will be the most effective approach.

Obesity is an incredibly complex issue involving many unrelated factors such as the global food supply, availability of healthy affordable foods, physical built environments, safe places to play and exercise, policies affecting physical education in schools and many more.  The problem is complicated and simple at the same time – we all need a healthy diet and exercise, to eat the right foods (not too much) and get plenty of physical activity.  The energy balance (calories in = calories out) is a pretty basic equation.

One of the highlights of the conference was the introduction of a new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention – Solving the Weight of the Nation. The report details five goals with multiple strategies focused on 1) integrating physical activity every day in every way, 2) making healthy foods available everywhere, 3) marketing what matters for a healthy life, 4) activating employers and health care professionals and 5) strengthening schools as the heart of health.

Relating to healthy foods, the recommended strategies included reducing the overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, increasing healthier food options for children in restaurants and implementing stronger nutritional standards for food sold through the government at all public spaces.  We also need to address “food deserts” to ensure that healthy, fresh foods are available in inner city neighborhoods as well as very rural areas that are now served only by gas stations and tiny markets. Marketing of foods, especially to children, should support a healthy diet, and nutrition policies related to SNAP (food stamps), WIC and school lunch programs should be revamped to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Directly related to Guiding Stars, the IOM report again recommends that FDA and USDA implement a single standard nutrition labeling system for front of packages and retail store shelves. (This was based on their original recommendation in the full 2011 IOM report, Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices.)

So, what’s new?  Many folks at the conference highlighted Michelle Obama’s ongoing efforts to address obesity through the Let’s Move program.  Sam Kass and many others are working hard to promote healthy chefs, fresh local food sources, major improvements to school lunch programs and healthy vending options. Grass roots efforts across the country, similar to Let’s Go and 5210, are making a difference at the local level.  There is also an exciting new effort to raise awareness on this national crisis. HBO has teamed up with the IOM, the CDC, and the National Institutes of Health to create a major new documentary series, called The Weight of The Nation – Confronting America’s Obesity Epidemic.  This effort, which has been three years in the making, includes four documentary films, a book, a robust website and social marketing. The campaign is targeting a nationwide outreach effort to more than 40,000 community organizations and their educational resources are freely available online.

Weight of the Nation HBO Series Logo

It has taken years for our country to get into this mess and it will take many years to solve.  But dedicated folks in all sectors – government, health care, educators, businesses, non-profits and community volunteers – are taking positive steps in the right direction, and these efforts are beginning to show promise.  I came away from the Weight of the Nation conference feeling enlightened and optimistic… and convinced that Guiding Stars has a key role — along with many other efforts — to help make it easier for people to make healthy choices.