HEADLINES / TRENDS l STATS l RESEARCH l MEDIA l PEOPLE

September 2010

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Obesity As Public Health Crisis

Given all the ailments associated with obesity, it’s not hard to see why being overweight would be a burden. However, the pressure those excess pounds put on healthcare costs makes it a problem for everyone, even though “there’s some resistance to the idea that obesity isn’t just an individual matter,” says Serena Vinter, MHS, senior research associate with the Trust for America's Health (www.healthyamericans.org).

According to TFAH’s annual report on obesity, F as in Fat, weight-related costs account for nearly 10% of the nation’s yearly medical bill. But the price of obesity goes beyond the direct dollars spent to fight its health effects. As the TFAH report states, “Rising healthcare costs and a workforce in poor health are driving down our ability to compete in the global economy.”

The biggest obstacle to lowering obesity rates lies in “the way our lives are structured,” says Vinter. “People are sitting in front of a computer for eight hours. There is not a lot of activity.” For some people, access to high-quality food is a problem. “You can say, ‘Eat healthier foods,’ but it can be hard to act on,” Vinter says. “Maybe they live where there isn’t a supermarket.”

While stories of people dropping hundreds of pounds are impressive, Vinter says that isn’t generally necessary to see improvements in health. “For people who are obese, losing just a small percentage of their body weight, maybe 7%, can really help,” she notes.

“It doesn’t need to be so drastic.”

(For more on this topic, see the Web Extra at the bottom of this page.)

 

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MEDIA

Food: A Global Perspective


Perhaps the single best way to understand people and the cultures they come from is to study their diets. That’s the premise behind What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets (Ten Speed Press, www.randomhouse.com/crown/tenspeed). Photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio have produced a visual encyclopedia of 80 people in 31 countries and the food each person eats in a typical day. The entries are grouped by calorie count, ranging from the Maasai herder at 800 calories to the UK “snacker mom” at 12,300. Despite making obvious the disparities in food quantity and quality consumed by people in different circumstances, What I Eat doesn’t treat its subjects like docu-drama puppet figures. Instead, Menzel and D’Aluisio make their points gently—by taking readers inside the lives of the people whose diets
they document.

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Fish Oil Linked to Lower
Breast Cancer Risk

Fish oil, best known for its heart-health benefits, may also help women evade breast cancer.
That finding came from a study done at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where investigators enrolled 35,000 women in a study about their use of various dietary supplements. Fish oil, a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, was on the list.

After six years, 880 women had developed breast cancer. Women who took fish oil regularly had a 32% reduced risk of invasive ductal breast cancer, the most common type. The scientists could not pinpoint the reason for fish oil’s anti-cancer effect, but suggested that omega-3’s ability to fight inflammation might play a role.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 207,000 women will be diagnosed with
invasive breast cancer this year, and that nearly 40,000 women will die of the disease.

Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 7/10

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UPDATE ROUNDUP

Original Story: “Great Big World,” April (Earth Matters)

What we said then: Spending time in nature helps keep kids physically and mentally healthy

What’s happened since: The National Environmental Education Foundation has launched a Children and Nature Initiative (www.neefusa.org/health/children_nature.htm), training healthcare professionals to provide support for nature-starved families

 

Original Story: “Pedal Power,” June

What we said then: Biking conditions your cardiovascular system, burns calories and reduces your risk of developing chronic illness

What’s happened since: Harvard School of Public Health researchers have found that riding a bike is as effective as walking briskly in helping obese younger women avoid additional weight gain (Archives of Internal Medicine 6/28/10)

 

Original Story: “When Sleep Is Elusive,” July/August

What we said then: Stress and late-night activities leave many people sleepless

What’s happened since: According to one investigation, the ideal amount of shuteye is seven to eight hours; anything less—or more—may increase risk for chronic ailments such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. These findings are based on data from the National Health Interview Study (Social Science & Medicine 9/10)

 

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Vitamin E May Ease Breathing

Millions of people suffer from respiratory distress caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But regular vitamin E supplementation may help reduce COPD risk in women 45 and older, say scientists at Cornell University and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The researchers examined data from the Women’s Health Study, a long-term investigation that ended in 2004. Nearly 40,000 participants had taken either 600 mg of vitamin E or a placebo every day.

Vitamin E was associated with a 10% reduction in COPD risk among both smokers and nonsmokers, according to results presented to the American Thoracic Society’s 2010 meeting in New Orleans. “If results of this study are borne out by further research, clinicians may recommend that women take vitamin E to prevent COPD,” says team member Anne Agler, a Cornell doctoral candidate.

COPD covers a number of breathing disorders, most notably chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Smoking is the main risk factor, followed by exposure to airborne lung irritants.

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Calcium in Youth for a
Slim Adulthood?

Everybody knows that calcium (along with vitamins D and K) helps children build strong bones and teeth. Now evidence suggests that getting enough calcium early in life may also help hold down weight gain long after high school graduation.

A research team at North Carolina State University led by Chad Stahl, PhD, came to this conclusion after an investigation involving guinea pigs, which are similar to humans in terms of bone growth and development. (Guinea pigs are among the few species known to suffer from osteoporosis-related fractures, just as people do.) The scientists studied two groups of newborn animals, 12 who were fed a calcium-deficient diet and 12 who received adequate amounts of the mineral. As expected, the guinea pigs in the first group had significantly lower levels of bone density and strength compared with their better-fed counterparts.

That wasn’t the only finding of interest, however. The researchers also looked at stem cells—those
that had not yet assumed their final form—in the animals’ bone marrow. Stem cells in the calcium-deficient guinea pigs appeared to be on their way to becoming fat cells instead of cells that create new bone. This means having more potential fat cells may predispose the baby guinea pigs to suffer
from not only osteoporosis later in life but to also gain excess weight as well.

The study findings were reported at this year’s Experimental Biology meeting in Anaheim, California. According to Stahl, the same team plans to conduct a longer feeding trial so they can see how the stem-cell changes affect the animals as they reach maturity, which occurs for guinea pigs at approximately eight months.

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Fighting the Fat War

While “eat less, exercise more” is a reasonable enough response to America’s obesity epidemic, many public health authorities are convinced that individual weight-loss efforts will only work in the framework of a society that encourages good health. I think slowly you are seeing people becoming more aware of this issue,” says TFAH’s Serena Vinter. “The First Lady has done a good job in talking about some of these factors; for example, if your child goes to a school where a healthy school lunch isn’t offered, that’s a problem.”

As a result, initiatives designed to reduce the nation’s collective waistline have grown. “In the past two years, programs and policies to prevent obesity have increased exponentially in number, strength and breadth,” states TFAH in F as in Fat. The need to nip excess weight gain in the bud has gained an especially high profile. According to TFAH, 50% of Americans “believe that childhood obesity is such an important issue that we need to invest more to prevent it immediately.”

In that vein, reforms aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles in schools are among the most popular anti-obesity ideas on the state level. “School-based efforts have focused on improving the quality of food sold in schools, limiting sales of less nutritious foods, improving physical education and health education, and encouraging increased physical activity,” says TFAH. In some cases, education about healthy living begins even earlier than that. For example, TFAH cites a Kentucky initiative that works through daycare centers to teach kids about making healthy food choices and the need to be active for at least 30 minutes every day.

Other efforts have focused on making it easier for people to buy fresh, nutritious foods and exercise safely outdoors in low-income areas, where grocery stores and supermarkets tend to be vastly outnumbered by fast-food outlets and convenience stores. Some of the ideas cited by TFAH include encouraging convenience stores to offer healthier food options, supporting local farmers’ markets and promoting the development of community gardens.

For all the newfound urgency behind America’s war on fat, the public health community cautions against expecting too much too soon. “Obesity rates have increased gradually over the past 25 years,” Vinter says. “In trying to come up with solutions to the problem, people should not be discouraged if we don’t see results right way. The problem didn’t evolve overnight and it not going to be solved overnight.”

Of course, no public anti-obesity program, no matter how well designed, can make up for a lack of effort by individuals who know they need to lose weight. “The government cannot and should not tell people what to do about their health,” says Vinter. “But it can make healthy choices easy choices.”
For a complete copy of F as in Fat, go to http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2010/.

 

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