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Obesity: A Global Crisis

Posted Sep 22 2008 5:37pm

Last week, I attended the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Boston, MA. One of the sessions that I found especially beneficial was an address given by eating disorder and obesity expert, Kelly Brownell, Ph.D. of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. In his address, Brownell spoke pointedly about the rapid increase in rates of obesity and obesity-related health concerns. While it is certainly true that in the majority of cases, obesity is not caused by a clinical eating disorder, obesity is understandably an important topic of concern for those of us in the eating disorders field.

According to Brownell, obesity has become a "global crisis", resulting in a rapid increase in obesity-related health issues. By the year 2030, the United States will witness a 37% increase in obesity-related diabetes. However, statistics are even more sobering in other parts of the world with China expecting to see a 76% increase in diabetes during the same time span, and India expecting a 134% increase.

Given that genetics cannot change that fast, Brownell postulates that, as a society, we have failed at dealing with the obesity issue.

First, Brownell offers that the food industry lacks personal responsibility for their advertising methods. Second, Brownell put forth the explanation that our environment has changed in such a way that it supports a culture of weight issues.

As to his first theory, Brownell gave the example of product placement in children's movie, TV shows, and even video games. Sports and entertainment celebrities also advocate unhealthy food products for kids. These influences, Brownell offers, can border on "exploitative, especially in the case of children."

With regard to environmental issues, Brownell presented studies that show obesity may be related, in part, to the increase in consumption of liquid calories - something that is a fairly recent cultural phenomenon. It used to be that consumers had few choices for liquid beverages: water, coffee, juice and merely one or two brands of cola. Now however, the average consumer is confronted exponentially more choices for calorie consumption in liquid form. For example, how many "energy drinks" can you name? What about fruit drinks? Sweetened, bottled teas? Frappuccino, anyone?

Studies show that the average body is not conditioned or prepared to interpret so many calories in liquid form and that people are less likely to compensate for liquid calories than they are for calories ingested in solid form.

In addition, recent studies suggest that chemical additives, coloring, preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup may all have addictive properties, thus potentially furthering the impact of these ingredients on an obesity-prone, sedentary society. Brownell made reference to studies which show that in animal research, animals will eat MORE food after consuming artificial sweeteners than they do after consuming sugar. The animals apparently overcompensate for restricted calories and are less likely to compensate for the calories they later consume. Thus, experts suggest that these studies may indicate that the body is most efficient when calories are ingested as the body anticipates them (in solid form, with natural ingredients) and may, in contrast, remain in a "state of readiness" (i.e., increasing in appetite) when artificial sweeteners are consumed.

Dr. Brownell's best advise: drink water and eat natural foods, something we have been advocating for with our clients/patients for some time.   

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