Posts Tagged by obesity research

The Weight of the Nation

Just a quick, last minute PSA in case you haven’t heard…

Tonight is the premiere of a new HBO documentary called The Weight of the Nation. This four-part documentary is a collaboration between HBO and the Institute of Medicine that basically serves to give Americans a wake up call about the dire consequences of this obesity epidemic we find ourselves facing.

You can watch the trailer below (or click here if the embedded video doesn’t work):


Tonight’s show is actually two parts – the first one looking at the consequences of the obesity epidemic and the second highlighting the science around how to lose weight, maintain it, and prevent weight loss. Parts 3 & 4 will air on May 15th.

Don’t worry, you don’t need HBO to watch the series. HBO will be streaming all four parts of the documentary here.

For more information, please click here.


If you watch, let me know what you think! Chances are I’ll be blogging about it at some point…

The Pricing Paradox

I eat a lot of vegetables. Not just because I’m a vegetarian and know they’re good for me, but also because I genuinely like them. When grocery shopping, I try to buy mostly fresh produce, whole grains, and individual ingredients, while avoiding (most) packaged foods.

But eating this way isn’t always easy, and it sure isn’t cheap. I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. People are short on time, short on money and short on resources. To make matters worse, the environment we live in isn’t very supportive of our health.

In general, many people know that fruits and vegetables are healthier choices than fast food. But that doesn’t change the fact that fresh produce is usually more expensive than packaged, processed foods or take-out from a fast food restaurant. How can we honestly expect people to buy more of the healthy items when they cost so much more?

One strategy that tries to fix this problem is to lower the prices of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. If we could make it cost less to eat healthy, people would eat more of the good stuff, right?



Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. A few days ago, a friend sent me an article that reminded me of a presentation about food pricing that I heard while at my UNC course last summer. The article talked about a study done at the University of Buffalo where researchers made healthy foods cheaper while keeping the prices of junk food the same. They wanted to see how that would effect food choices made by moms in a grocery store. Not surprisingly, when the prices were cheaper, moms did buy more healthy foods. But here’s the catch: the overall nutrition in their carts didn’t change. Instead of using the extra money to buy more healthy foods (or saving it), the moms actually used to it buy more junk. Not quite the result one would hope for.

So then what about doing the opposite? Will the overall effects be better if instead of lowering the cost of healthy foods, we raised the prices of the unhealthy ones? Taxing foods and beverages that have low nutritional value (like soda or fast foods) can encourage people to buy less. But, as you may have guessed, there can also be negative consequences to this. Such as the fact that it has a larger negative effect for families with lower income, and can unfortunately leave them without options if there aren’t cheaper healthy options to replace the foods they now can’t afford. Not to mention the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line. How do we actually define “not nutritious?” And how do you prevent people from buying other unhealthy (not taxed) foods instead?

Well then, if neither option is perfect alone, what would happen if you raised prices of unhealthy foods while also lowering prices of the healthy ones? Sounds like a perfect solution, right? Sadly, researchers have found that this isn’t a great solution either. The subsidy isn’t enough to overcome the negative impacts of the tax.

At this point, I’m sure it must sound like it’s time to just throw up our hands in defeat. Either that, or I suddenly have no faith in my profession and everything we are trying to do.

It may not sound like it, but my goal here is not to sound defeatist. I realize that I have raised a lot of problems without actually proposing a good solution. But my point is that there really is no simple answer. We know that as a country, our health needs work. We don’t eat healthy foods, we don’t exercise enough, and rates of obesity and chronic disease continue to grow. Something needs to be done to fix the health of our nation, but the solution isn’t going to be a simple one. Just like we can’t simply tell people to eat healthier and expect them to change, we can’t just change prices and expect our problems to be solved. Behavior change is a tough thing, especially when it involves behaviors that have become deep-rooted habits. It’s going to take a lot of time and many different strategies to reverse the bad habits of our country.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying! And I’m interested to hear your thoughts about all this. Do you find that buying healthy foods is tough because of the price? And how do you think we can help encourage people to eat more fresh, whole foods, while also making sure these foods are affordable and easy to access?


Allison Aubrey. Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn’t Enough

Shu Wen Ng. Driving a Response: Considerations for Point of Purchase, Pricing and Promotion (presentation at 2010 Obesity Prevention in Public Health Course at UNC; August 2010).

“It’s the environment, stupid.”

Okay, so I realize that starting off a post by calling you stupid isn’t exactly the best way to gain readers. But we all know I don’t really mean you. So just hear me out. And I promise I won’t call you stupid again!

Have you ever come across an article that so perfectly expresses everything you want to say, that you wish you wrote it yourself?

That’s what happened yesterday, when I found this article in the Business section of the New York Times. Now, I know what you’re thinking – this is a health blog. Why is this girl suddenly getting so fired up about business?? Well – I’m not. Not really, anyway. But the truth is that health affects all aspects of life. And even though being healthy makes you feel better and improves your personal quality of life, it has an economic impact as well. So a healthy world full of healthy people really benefits us all.

Anyway, the article, called Fixing a World That Fosters Fat, is all about how the environment is negatively impacting our health. This is what public health has been nagging people about for years…so you can imagine how exciting it was for me to see the same message appearing in the business section of a paper.

fast_food (Source)

I would highly recommend reading the entire article. It’s only 1 page long and is really, really good. Or you could just read the summary below, complete with a little HOTR-commentary.

A World that Fosters Fat

We all know that the general health of America is not very good. Chronic disease is on the rise, mostly due to a huge increase in obesity across the nation. The simple solution to this problem? Well, eat less junk and move more, of course!

Obesity US 1994 Percent of Obese Adults (BMI >=30) in the US in 1994

Obesity US 2009Percent of Obese Adults in US 15 years later (2009)


Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Anyone who has ever worked in the field of behavior change knows that it’s pretty tough to get people to change their habits, especially if they aren’t ready to make that change. To make the issue even more complicated, we live in an environment that is not very supportive of a healthy lifestyle. We only have to make a trip to our local grocery store (if we even have one!) to see this is true. What are the most expensive things in there? The fresh organic produce, and the whole, minimally processed foods. On top of this, we work longer hours, have longer commutes, are bombarded with unhealthy advertising and cheap fast food chains, and don’t always have a safe, affordable place to exercise.

Dr. Brownell, who is the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale says:

“Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat junk food and you should exercise. But the environment makes it so difficult that fewer people can do these things, and then you have a public health catastrophe.”

So then, what should we do? To put it simply — we need to stop relying solely on trying to change individual behavior. You can’t expect a person to stick with new, healthy habits if you put them back into the same unhealthy environment. In order to help people make these lifestyle shifts, we need to change the culture and the environment in which they live.

This is, in essence, what the course I attended last week was all about (for more info on that, click here). Putting the emphasis on fixing the environment so that healthy choices are made easier.

It’s important to note that I am not suggesting that we as individuals don’t need to take any personal responsibility for our own health. This isn’t an excuse to throw up our hands and say, “It’s not my fault. There’s nothing I can do!” But I am recognizing that there are lots of barriers that can get in our way. And depending on the social, economic, and physical environment you are in, those barriers can be pretty intimidating.

Two Potential Fixes

Obviously it’s going to take a lot to completely change our environment. But it’s all about the small steps, right? The article suggests two big fixes that could go a long way in changing America’s habits:

1.) Equalizing food pricing. A big reason that fast food is so cheap is because of the government subsidies of corn and soybeans – two crops that are hugely relied on by the industry. Just how big of an impact do these subsidies have? According to the article, the inflation-adjusted price of a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese went down by 5.44% from 1997 – 2003. On the other hand, from 1997 – 2003, the inflation adjusted price of fruit and veggies rose by 17%! Getting rid of the subsidies that support unhealthy food could fix this trend.

corn_field (Source)

2.) Involving the private sector. The health problems caused by obesity and its related chronic diseases cost employers a lot of money every year. Companies can help promote healthier lifestyles (and reduce these costs), by finding ways to lower work-related stress, building on-site fitness centers, including healthy snacks/drinks in vending machines, and offering wellness programs and incentives.

vending machine_veggies(Source)

These aren’t the only things that need to be done, but they do symbolize an overall shift in our culture. A culture that needs to start valuing equal access to healthy, affordable foods and safe places to exercise and play. And a culture that puts more emphasis on the joy of cooking and exercising and less effort into finding the quick, simple solution.

The environment’s affect on us is a complicated one. To learn more, I would highly recommend watching the documentary Unnatural Causes, if you haven’t already. It’s a 7-part documentary put out by PBS that’s all about how the social and physical environments we live in impact our health. The entire series is pretty long (about 4 hours) but it is split up into 7 different episodes. You can learn more about each episode and see clips from the film here.

**In case you didn’t read it and now think I’m just an extremely rude person, the title of this post is a direct quote from the article.

3 Minutes to Inspire; 4 Years to Change the World

This week, I’m feeling particularly inspired. I’m currently in beautiful North Carolina for a course on Obesity Prevention in Public Health. All week long, I get to eat amazing food (maybe too amazing for an obesity prevention conference ;)), meet interesting people, and learn about how the environment impacts our health and, more importantly, what we can do to change this. Listening to experts and participating in discussions about policy and media strategies that can change  environments to support healthy choices is the kind of stuff I live for! So even though the days are long, the time goes by fast as I try to soak in as much information as my brain can handle.

I’ve only been here for 2 days, but I’ve already been given so much to think and write about. For the moment, I’m just taking it all in and getting inspired to bring these lessons back home with me.

But, believe it or not, that’s not the only reason I’m feeling inspired lately. Today, I actually want to share something completely different. Something beyond the scope of what I normally write about on this blog. But something that moved me so much, I knew I had to pass it along.

A few days ago, a colleague shared with me a video that got me thinking about health in more general terms. It’s easy (for most) to think about our own health and what we can do to improve it. And we can probably talk about improving the health of our family, of our communities, or even our nation. But what about the health of the world? Not only the health of all mankind, but the health of the very earth itself.

Of course in this case, I am speaking of health in the very broadest sense of the word. While it’s clear that we live in a time of many great changes and opportunities, we are also facing some serious, serious problems. Climate change, pollution, hunger, disease, persecution, injustice. The list goes on and on. Looking at all these challenges  and the destructive path that we’re on can be overwhelming. Changing the behavior of one person is hard enough, but changing the behaviors of the entire world?! It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and scream, “I give up!”

But — there’s a new campaign that wants to jolt us out of our helplessness and inaction, and motivate each and every one of us to join together to make this change possible. It’s not run by any one organization, but instead wants to be a collective movement — a goal for every organization, every person.

The movement is called FOUR YEARS. GO. And it’s goals are lofty.

From the website:


A campaign to change the course of history. Really.

It’s time to make a choice. We can let present trends continue and risk almost certain breakdown and collapse.

Or… We can act and set humanity on a new course toward a just, thriving and sustainable world.

The choice is clear. We already possess the tools to shape our future. What’s missing is our collective will to act.

Four years is enough time to build that will, to change our direction, even to transform ourselves. And Go because we must start now.

There is still time to act, but no time to waste.

The purpose of the FOUR YEARS. GO. campaign is to empower individuals and organizations to create goals that will help move us (meaning all of humanity) to a positive tipping point by 2014. A tipping point that will literally send us on a new path for a brighter future.
But don’t rely on my words to find out what it’s all about! I strongly encourage you to take just 3 minutes out of your day to watch this video. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, get inspired about what we can all do to fix it.

Have you heard of FOUR YEARS. GO.? I’m interested to hear your thoughts about this movement. And, of course, if you were inspired or moved in any way by the video, I strongly encourage you to pass it on. We only have 4 years, after all…

Could Soda Make The World a Better Place?

We drink a lot of soda in this country. On average, each person drinks about 190 calories a day worth of soda and other sugar sweetened beverages, and (even though we know it’s not good for us) today we drink twice as much soda as people did in 1971. Our habits have fueled a $72 billion industry; an industry that will do whatever it can to keep you sipping that carbonated liquid candy.

sodacans (Source)

Each year, soda companies spend millions of dollars on marketing, trying to frame their products in a positive light … and making sure their brands are everywhere you look. They write catchy jingles, give away fabulous prizes, and sponsor schools and get their names plastered on scoreboards. Anyone who has watched an episode of American Idol has probably seen the Coca-Cola logos all over the place — they’ve been a major sponsor of the show for every season.

coca_ad_brickwall pepsi_ad

The entire food industry spends a lot of money on marketing. But carbonated beverages make up a huge portion of that. Just how huge? Well, according to a recent report on media spending in 2006:

  • Carbonated beverages had the highest marketing expenses related to children (ages 2 – 11) and adolescents (ages 12 – 17) compared to other industries — $492 million in just one year. The next highest was restaurant foods, which came in at $294 million.
  • Carbonated beverage companies spend a lot of money on “new media” (i.e. the web, digital ads, word-of-mouth, viral marketing, etc) – more than any other food or beverage category, in fact. In 2006, they spent $21 million on these forms of marketing.
  • That year, $117 million was spent marketing these beverages using product placements before or in video games and movies watched at home/in theaters, sponsoring athletes/sports teams, celebrity endorsements, and “product branding in conjunction with philanthropic endeavors.”

Soda has become so much a part of our everyday lives that we barely even stop to think about it anymore.

800px-Coca-Cola_car (Source)

But recently, there have been two pretty major developments in the soda-PR world that have got me thinking – just how far will these companies go?

The company behind both initiatives – Pepsi.

Pepsi Refresh

pepsi_refresh Forget fancy giveaways for new “stuff.” Pepsi has now taken it a step further with their Pepsi Refresh Project, a campaign that encourages you to submit (and vote on) grant proposals in the fields of health, culture, food & shelter, the planet, neighborhoods, and education. Their promise in return? Awarding millions of dollars to projects that will make a positive impact in the world.

The campaign asks, “Could a soda really make the world a better place?” And when you take a look at the list of funded and proposed projects, it’s hard to argue. Many of the currently funded initiatives sound amazing – saving babies from spinal muscular atrophy; building a new playground and community garden for a boys & girls club; bringing youth together to help build a cottage for severely abused foster children; helping to save dogs at a no-kill shelter by building a new indoor shelter – and the list goes on and on.

Honestly, I’m not sure how to react to this campaign. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Pepsi has promised so much money to so many worthy causes. But on the other hand – this is a company that is contributing to a rise in obesity and chronic disease across the country (more about this below). Obviously each and every one of us have a choice about whether or not we want to drink soda, but Pepsi isn’t exactly an innocent bystander in all of this. Their marketing techniques are getting more creative (and more pushy) by the minute.

Case in point —

Pepsi Funds Obesity and Nutrition Research

Apparently PepsiCo recently announced funding for a graduate fellowship at Yale School of Medicine’s MD-PhD program. The topic of this fellowship? Nutritional Science Research. Or, more specifically, work that focuses on metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity (ironic, no?). Not only that, but the company has just opened a research lab in Science Park (i.e. right next to Yale) to develop “healthier food and beverage products.”

The Dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Robert Alpern, has been quoted as saying:

PepsiCo’s commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world.

Excuse me — what?? I’m sorry, I must have missed something. You say Pepsi is committed to improving health through proper nutrition?? I understand that they are doing a commendable thing by donating millions of dollars to various organizations, but to say that a soda company supports proper nutrition is stretching it a little too much. Especially when the latest data clearly shows that soda consumption is very very bad for our health. So should we really be happy to have Pepsi’s money funding nutrition research? Is that truly a recipe for honest science?

The {Negative} Impact of Sugar Sweetened Beverages on Health

I’m sure you’ve all heard someone say that lost “x” amount of pounds, just by cutting soda out of their diet. Well the evidence for this is more than anecdotal. There have been many studies that connect soda consumption with weight gain and poor health. For example, a recent article published by scientists at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (at Yale University, no less – which makes me even more uncomfortable about this new Pepsi-Yale partnership, since this center has been a leader in nutrition research for some time) reviewed 88 different studies that looked at the connection between soda consumption and nutrition and health outcomes. The results of this analysis were pretty clear. Not only did they find that soda drinkers consumed more calories overall (meaning people don’t compensate for the calories they drink by eating less), but they also found a connection between drinking soda and increased body weight, drinking less milk, consuming less calcium and other important nutrients, and a higher risk for developing diabetes.

Another study found that the increased consumption of sugar sweetened beverages in this country has contributed to an estimated 130,000 new cases of diabetes, 14,000 new cases of coronary heart disease, and 50,000 additional life-years burdened by coronary heart disease in the US – just between the years of 1990 and 2000. This has led to at least 6,000 excess deaths from any cause and 21,000 life years lost.

Pretty scary stuff, if you ask me.

Ok…great…so the point is…

So what exactly is my point in ranting writing about all of this? I’m not trying to paint soda as the scapegoat for all the world’s health problems. And I’m certainly not saying that drinking a soda every once in awhile is going to kill you – or even have any long term consequences. Even though I don’t drink it on a regular basis, I have to admit – sometimes a Coke sounds really refreshing (especially when it’s mixed with a little coconut rum! ;)).

My goal is to point out that these companies are trying new angles when it comes to advertising – angles that make them look really good on the surface, but upon closer examination, seem a bit more sinister. I think that corporate responsibility and giving back to the community are great things. In this case, however, it just makes me a little uncomfortable.

But — I’m interested to hear your thoughts. What do you think of the Pepsi Refresh project? And of soda company-funded research? Does it outweigh the health problems caused by drinking soda? And is it really the company’s responsibility to care?

For further reading:

PepsiCo Opens New Haven Research Lab To Develop Healthier Products

Sugar Water Gets a Facelift: What Marketing Does for Soda

The Food Industry Follows Big Tobacco’s Playbook

Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on Nutrition and Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Sugary Soft Drinks Lead to Diabetes, Research Finds

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