Do food manufacturers bear a responsibility for the global obesity crisis? Of course they do. So do restaurants that offer nutritionally poor fare and exorbitant portion sizes. But the decision to consume foods and drinks that cause waistlines to expand ever further still rests with the individual. So, from which end should we try to tackle the problem?
Experts remain divided over the issue, despite of decades-long research on the true causes of excessive weight gain. What is unclear to most is where countermeasures should be implemented first, at the supplier -- or the consumer level.
In a special series on the subject, the medical journal The Lancet has published different points of view, leaving considerable space for further discussion.
A majority of study findings, however, seem to lean towards top-down solutions such as regulatory measures that force food suppliers to better comply with dietary guidelines and recommendations by health experts, rather than a bottom-up approach with a primary focus on consumer behaviour.
Although obesity is a complex issue, many debates about its causes and solutions are centered around overly simple dichotomies that present seemingly competing perspectives. Examples of such dichotomies explored in this series include personal versus collective responsibilities, supply versus demand-type explanations for consumption of unhealthy foods, government regulation versus industry self-regulation, and so forth, according to the series' final report. While people ought to be held responsible for their health and well-being, environmental factors can support or undermine their ability to act in their self-interest, the authors conclude.
"Today's food environments exploit people's biological, psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods. This reinforces preferences and demands for foods of poor nutritional quality, furthering the unhealthy food environments. Regulatory actions from governments and increased efforts from industry and civil society will be necessary to break these vicious cycles," they argue.
Not everyone agrees with one-sided attempts at solution finding of either kind. Dr. Mike Gibney, the director of the Institute of Food and Health at the University College Dublin, Ireland, and author of Ever Seen a Fat Fox? Human Obesity Explored, calls for a combination of bottom-up (consumers) and top-down (governments, industries) approaches.
Multi-faceted action that attacks the problem at its roots, namely individual eating behaviour, but doesn't let "Big Food" off the hook, is the most promising way to go, he says in an interview with Food Navigator. We do have the required resources to make a change, he says, it's just the will that is lacking to follow through on what we know - on either side.
While obesity has been acknowledged as a global epidemic, it is unlikely that universally applicable solutions can be found. Methods that may work locally or regionally may fail on a larger scale. Differences between cultures, customs, education, economic status and governance may prove too great to overcome.
Some have suggested to take up the fight against obesity in similar fashion as the so-called "tobacco wars" in the 1990s, when policies were put in place that helped reduce tobacco use. But although anti-smoking campaigns and programs played an important role, it was also due to intense education efforts about the health risks that led many smokers to quit.
We should be careful, however, to expect too much from such strategies, even if they have worked in the past, because the issues differ. Looking at the tobacco or alcohol model with their top-down measures is flawed because neither has much in common with food, Dr. Gibney cautions. You can wean yourself from smoking or drinking but not from eating, he says. That means that ultimately consumers remain in the driver seat when it comes to making lasting changes, albeit they can use all the help they can get.
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These kids are even more likely to become obese adults.
According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17% (or 12.5 million) of kids and adolescents aged 2 - 19 years in the United States are now obese.
The rate among this age group increased from 5% to 10.4% in 1976-1980 and 2007-2008.
Obese kids are more likely to also be obese as adults, which puts them at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and more adult health problems.
CDC data shows that there was an increase in the pervasiveness of obesity in the American population between 1976-1980 and then again from 1999-2000, the prevalence of obesity increased.
Obesity in low-income 2- to 4-year-olds rose from 12.4% of the population in 1998 to 14.5% in 2003 but increased to 14.6% in 2008.
And only 25% of kids in this age group get the recommended three daily serving of vegetables. One way to make sure your child gets the amount of fruit and vegetables that they need is to serve them at every meal.
In 2011, only 29% of high-schoolers in a survey participated in 60 minutes of physical activity each day, which is the amount recommended by the CDC. It’s best for kids to get three different types of exercise: aerobic activity, like walking or running, muscle strengthening activities like push-ups or pull-ups and bone strengthening activities like jumping rope.
High blood pressure, diabetes and other cardiovascular issues have been previously tied to obesity. But a 2013 study found that obesity also puts kids at risk for other health issues such as ADHD, allergies and ear infections.
This number was documented by the FTC in 2008. According to the APA, there are strong associations between the increase in junk food advertising to kids and the climbing rate of childhood obesity.
Follow Timi Gustafson, R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD