Ecology of Obesity

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Altering the Ecology of Obesity

by Editorial Board, The Oregonian, Friday January 02, 2009, 3:01pm

Our habitat has encouraged weight gain; now,through small changes, we can help people drop pounds.  The fat has crept up on us, as it is wont to do. And for decades, the obesity problem has been sneaking up on Americans, too. We’ve become adept — expert even — at ignoring it.  Mirrors distort, and photographs can be stored away. The best way to grasp the problem perhaps is to watch it spreading across the landscape, and the decades. An animated map, put together by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and similar to a time-lapsed photograph documents the astonishing change between 1985 and 2007.

The map shows that by 2007, only one state, Colorado, ranked as relatively skinny. It has an obesity rate under 20 percent. Thirty states, including Oregon, have obesity rates over 25 percent.

But even that figure doesn’t really capture what’s wrong, since it doesn’t include the percentage of people who are overweight, but not obese.

Not yet, anyway.

Improve Ecology To Fight Obesity

There isn’t one huge thing we can do to reverse these trendlines. Yet there are a multitude of things that can be done to improve the environment — or what health advocates increasingly think of as the ecology of obesity.  Our habitat promotes too much eating and too little exercise. Whatever encourages better habits on either front can help. When a state fully funds physical education, as Oregon should do, that can help enormously.  But when an architect plans a building with a well-lit, attractive staircase, inviting people to “walk, don’t ride,” that can help, too. When a developer puts sidewalks, bike trails and parks in a development, it encourages activity, not because it’s good for you, but because it’s fun.  When people plant vegetable gardens — as many nutritionists hope President Barack Obama will do in the White House — it encourages experimentation with healthier cooking and eating. (Vegetables often prove tastier than people expect.)

Label Calories On Food Supplies

Obama, famously, loves arugula. So “he could grow it,” says Nancy Becker, head of the nutrition policy alliance in Oregon. (In our state, Becker points out, it’s easier to grow arugula than it is to grow tomatoes.)  In 2008, Becker and other public health advocates won a significant victory when Multnomah County approved menu labeling for chain restaurants. As a result, in 2009, we’ll see calorie counts popping up everywhere, sort of like nutritional price tags. The counts will encourage people to think more before eating, and also encourage chains to reformulate their recipes.  The state of California, New York City and, more recently, Philadelphia have also adopted menu labeling. In the 2009 legislative session, there will be a push in Oregon to take menu labeling statewide.

All the polls suggest the public wants this information. And the market is moving this way, too. In October, Yum Brands, parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, announced it would begin adding nutritional information to indoor menu boards at 4,000 of its outlets.  There’s good reason to hope 2009 will be the year when Americans stop treating obesity as a painful personal problem. There are many policy steps we can take, together, to improve the shape of the future.