July 29, 2015

The Power of Information: Obesity and the Blue Map

Here, from the New York Times, is the latest of several recent articles that report how obesity is leveling off in the States:

Americans Are Finally Eating Less


Calories consumed daily by the typical American adult, which peaked around 2003, are in the midst of their first sustained decline since federal statistics began to track the subject, more than 40 years ago. The number of calories that the average American child takes in daily has fallen even more — by at least 9 percent. …

In the most striking shift, the amount of full-calorie soda drunk by the average American has dropped 25 percent since the late 1990s.

After rising for decades, calorie consumption has declined in recent years as public attitudes have shifted.


There is no single moment when American attitudes toward eating changed, but researchers point to a 1999 study as a breakthrough. That year, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association that turned into something of a blockbuster.

The paper included bright blue maps illustrating worsening obesity rates in the 1980s and 1990s in all 50 states. Researchers knew the obesity rate was rising, but Dr. Ali Mokdad, the paper’s lead author, said that when he presented the maps at conferences, even the experts were gasping.

A year later, he published another paper, with a similar set of maps, showing a related explosion in diabetes diagnoses. “People became more aware of it in a very visual and impactful way,” said Hank Cardello, a former food industry executive who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy center. “That created a lot of attention and concern.”



Shortly afterward, the surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, issued a report — “Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity” — modeled on the famous 1964 surgeon general’s report on tobacco. The 2001 report summarized the increasing evidence that obesity was a risk factor for several chronic diseases, and said controlling children’s weight should be a priority, to prevent the onset of obesity-related illnesses….

Slowly, the messages appear to have sunk in with the public.

However …

The recent calorie reductions appear to be good news, but they, alone, will not be enough to reverse the obesity epidemic. A paper by Kevin Hall, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, estimated that for Americans to return to the body weights of 1978 by 2020, an average adult would need to reduce calorie consumption by 220 calories a day. The recent reductions represent just a fraction of that change.

“This was like a freight train going downhill without brakes,” Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, said. “Anything slowing it down is good.”

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