Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Drowning in Statistics

Just one week ago The New York Times featured a piece on the continued rise of obesity in America. The article reports that more than 1 in 4 Americans was obese in 2009, with obesity rates of 30% or greater in nine states, all in the South. Furthermore, it is likely these numbers are underestimates since research was conducted via phone surveys, and people tend to believe and report that they weigh less than they actually do. The concern seems to be that programs and measures intended to curb this trend are inadequate and failing.

We've heard it all before - Americans are getting fatter, and faster than originally thought. Still, I was amazed when I was in my parents' home last month and rummaging through my old closet and came across a paper I'd written my sophomore year of college on - you guessed it - the rise of obesity in America. Back then I had not even declared a major yet, but was dabbling in cultural studies, everything from film to Jewish studies to philosophy to sociology. I was enrolled in an honors program that required me to take a writing-intensive science class in the spring, where we had to write a 20-page paper and make an hour-long Powerpoint presentation on a current issue in the science arena. Fellow classmates chose the environment and the genome and I chose obesity. This was nearly ten years ago, and emerging data compiled from the late nineties by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) was already triggering alarm bells among public health officials, so that the NIH released a guide for treating overweight and obesity.

Back in 2001, as now, I learned there were various hypotheses attributing the causes of obesity to everything from genetics and biological factors to behavioral, economic, social and political ones. It was while researching the topic that I first read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation with both horror and fascination. The rise of the fast food chain coincided with the influx of women to the workplace, the decline of physical activity and the increase in obesity.

The role of the media is no less significant in this picture. Movies, television shows and magazines still project images of unrealistically skinny woman as the prototypes for beauty. While there has been a modicum of backlash in recent years, most notably through Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, the iconic beauties in our culture are predominantly tall, thin and modelesque and fail to represent any sort of achievable norm. Still, in a perverse way, one might think that the persistence of skinny as beautiful in our society would encourage people to lose weight. Instead, it fosters a culture of inadequacy and depression, and fuels a multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry (in 2008 the number was $40 billion).

Public health officials want people to lose weight in order to be healthier, as obesity related diseases and medical costs are growing concerns, especially in hard economic times. And many people want to lose weight, but are motivated by slightly different goals, largely cosmetic in nature. With diet books like The Belly Fat Cure and Skinny Bitch reigning on bestseller lists we are a nation obsessed with weight and appearance. I'm reminded of the line that opened every episode of the dark and twisted FX drama about plastic surgeons, Nip/Tuck: "Tell me what you don't like about yourself", a question that reeks of self-loathing.

I've painted a fairly grim picture of the situation but I'm not really all that cynical. In the face of overwhelming statistics about obesity, each person has the ability to make a tiny dent in shifting these trends by refusing to become another number. These dents will come in the forms of daily personal decisions about what we eat, ways we spend our time and how we move our bodies. And it only takes a small but committed change (what Lewis Pugh, in talking about climate change, might call "a radical tactical shift") to make a (statistically significant) difference in the long run. All that is lacking then is the education, awareness and inspiration to enact those changes. In studying nutrition I hope to help out with the education and awareness. And when I need help with the inspiration part I know I can rely on TED.


  1. So the greatest challenge is still - how to get people to make small changes - there is evidently a reality show about obesity camp for teens called "too fat for fifteen" or some such thing. They were interviewed on the Today show having lost a lot of weight in 4 months at camp, but they each sat next to their obese mothers - only one of whom was willing to admit that she played a role in getting him to this condition in the first place. You're going into the right business.

  2. The problem with shows like that (such as The Biggest Loser) is that they try to patch up a major long-term problem with a quick fix solution. Effective change is usually slow. Here are 5 small achievable places to start:

    1. If you drink coffee or tea, try to have at least one cup a day without sweetener.
    2. Once a day take the stairs instead of the elevator.
    3. If you ride public transportation, get off one stop early or walk to the next stop over.
    4. Swap one sweetened beverage each day with water.
    5. Add one plant food to your day (a fruit, vegetable, nut or legume).

    Not everyone needs to start with detox, boot camp and marathon training. In fact, most people shouldn't.

    Childhood obesity is a bit more complicated because kids may grow up in homes (like the ones you described) where the odds are stacked against them. That presents other challenges.