Opinion

More attention must be paid to obesity prevention | Column

The United States government does not enough to prevent obesity and obesity-related illnesses, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a nonprofit organization that advises policy makers on issues of science, medicine and health.

Obesity continues to pose one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century, creating serious health, economic, and social consequences, despite of the numerous efforts that are being made to better understand the causes of the epidemic and to implement preventive interventions, says the report.

35.7 percent of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are currently diagnosed as obese in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a prior report, the IOM laid out its plans for solving the nation's obesity crisis through decisive measures in terms of policies and incentives for individuals and communities to speed up progress in treatment and prevention.

Besides the staggering human toll caused by obesity and related chronic diseases and disabilities, the IOM warns that the growing medical costs are unsustainable, even in the foreseeable future. Today, treating obesity amounts to nearly $200 billion annually.

Preventive measures put in place so far, however, are insufficient, sporadic, and underfunded, the IOM report warns. The organization recommends the creation of a task force to guide and oversee a comprehensive national anti-obesity plan.

The concept of prevention also plays an important role in the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). ThePrevention and Public Health Fund (PPHF) was created as a national investment to reduce the occurrence of preventable chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, funding for the program was substantially reduced by Congress in 2012 and again in 2013.

A good example for how preventive health policies could be developed was set by the New York State Department of Health (NYDH). In a "Strategic Plan for Overweight and Obesity Prevention", the department listed a set of important markers to help more New Yorkers achieve and maintain a healthy weight range.

Among them are the goals to increase public awareness of obesity as a major health threat; identify environmental, socio-economic and personal factors that contribute to obesity; recognize early tendencies toward excessive weight gain; improve management of obesity-related diseases; reduce food insecurity and hunger; set guidelines for healthier eating habits; promote lifelong physical activity; encourage employer-sponsored physical activity and fitness programs in the workplace; require daily physical education (PE) classes for all public and private schools; recommend limiting television viewing time for children; decrease exposure of children and adolescents to advertisements for products associated with overeating; work toward greater availability and affordability of healthy foods and beverages in low-income neighborhoods.

The NYDH also acknowledges that government cannot do all, if any, of this alone and needs the public to support initiatives, policies and legislative measures to implement at least some of its recommendations.

Granted, these are highly complex issues that require concerted action by all of society, whether it's on the federal, state or local level. That in itself makes it a daunting task. But, considering the dismal track we are on, what choice do we have other than doing our best to turn this crisis around.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+ and on Pinterest.

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