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Tuesday Talk: How to address the obesity epidemic?

February 28, 2012 By Meg Reid, Undergraduate Research Fellow

Thanks to exploding obesity rates, American children now have a lower life expectancy than their parents. A recent article in Nature suggests that we should regulate the sale of sugar through taxes, age restrictions, and limits on sales of sugary items in schools.

How should we effectively address the obesity epidemic? Is the regulation of sugar an appropriate step?

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  • Nina Slupphaug says:

    February 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

    We need to think broader than just sugar and diet. After all, history has taught us that we can get away with diets that include a moderate amount of fat, carbs, and sugars as long as we stay active. My farmer grandparents never met a sugarlump they didn’t want in their coffee or a slab of bacon that couldn’t improve dinner, but they were very active in their daily life and that kept them healthy and not at all obese. Secondly we should consider investing in education, including p.e and home-ec. Some may think of home economisc as outdated, but these days it seems many people don’t know how to cook food that doesn’t come with microwave instructions and learning how to make simple homemade foods and learn more about nutrition in a school setting seems a good alternatiev to reading diet blogs. We’re becoming less active by each generation and kids who come from families that are not very active/outdoorsy/healthy, it is in school they have the opportunity to learn about healthy living and make sure they practice it (at least once or twice a week). Furthermore I would suggest an investment in public transportation. Isn’t it the case that studies have found you get more daily exercise if you use public transportation? Not being transported from door to door ensures at least a minimum of daily exercise.

    Hope all is well in Minnesota, you are all doing a great job!

  • Barbara Lickness says:

    February 28, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Obesity isn’t just about sugar. It’s about carbohydrates period and it’s about lack of physical activity and genetics definitely play a role. But, stay the hell out of my doctors office and my child’s doctors office you morons

  • Rick says:

    February 28, 2012 at 8:58 am

    I am not sure regulating sugar is the answer to fixing obesity. Parents need to live healthier life styles teach their kids to eat healthier and stay active. Offering healthier meal choices in school is a excellent way to educate and get kids to have healthier eating habits.

  • Kathleen Chesney says:

    February 28, 2012 at 9:10 am

    I want to emphasize the importance of improving the school lunch program by cutting down suger, cornsyrup and other high calorie sweeteners.  This will improve students’ ability to learn as well as promote better eating habits.  Especially get rid of the vending machines.  What the program needs is more greens, other vegetables and complex carbohydrates.

  • Ann Erickson says:

    February 28, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Restore SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Program). SHIP, started in 2008 by Govenor Pawlenty, has a proven track record of improving access to healthier food and increasing activity through initiatives designed and implemented by local communities.  The return on investment of preventing the explosion in chronic disease and disability caused by obesity is conservatively $6 to $1. I am so proud of our nation leading SHIP program. We need to fully fund it and get behind it in order to maximize SHIP’s full potential.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Here you all are trying to kill the cash cow the middle class and rich share. The rich fatten them with refined sugars and bleached flour mixed with the correct chemical concoctions. Sold cheap enough for them to gorge themselves into obesity. Then we wait for the symptoms so the middle class symptomologists can promote and perscribe the correct cemical responce. Then the real profit taking begins. This scheme would have made Hitlers henchmen droole, but it’s killing America. Could this be the progressives collective new Eugenics? Oooeeeeooo.

  • Karen says:

    February 28, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I agree with Nina. Cooking is key to eating well, and exercise is necessary for good health. You will not be healthy—you will get fat—if what you eat comes in a microwavable container that you can consume it in front of the TV.

    Instead of regulations on sugar intake, perhaps legislators should fund public cooking classes at or nearby farmers’ markets where good food can be obtained. Some foundations are already designing these programs in low income areas. Let’s make cooking the new national past time.

  • Ruth Robelia says:

    February 28, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I agree with all of your comments.  In addition, we need to educate the children about the health risk of extra weight.  Also, the sugar beet industry in Minnesota is subsidized.  Get rid of these and make it more profitable to grow certified organic crops.  We must encourage young parents to introduce real food, without sugar, to their infants when solid foods are introduced.

  • Ruth Robelia says:

    February 28, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Remove subsidies from sugar beet farming.  Bring back local gardening in the neighborhoods so children can learn what real food looks and tastes like.  Introduce young mothers to the idea of “no sugar added” fruits and veggies from little on.
    Introduce the concept of livable communities with walking paths and sidewalks as a health mandate anytime a new construction project is studied. 
    But most of all, STOP pushing hot-lunch as a healthy meal. Syrup, ketchup, pudding, sugar laden cereals, etc. have no place in a daily diet.  They should be a treat.

  • Susan Misterek, PhD says:

    February 28, 2012 at 10:23 am

    It is important to understand that, as a society, we are incorrect about the science underlying obesity and metabolism.  For 40 years, nutritionists and doctors have told us that a high-fat diet is bad, and that we should eat carbohydrates as our primary source of body fuel.  In the last 10-15 years, the science has begun to show that these ideas do not work for a large proportion of people.  The first source of information should be Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories Bad Calories, which was the result of his five-year study of the [bad] science of nutrition.  A large proportion of the population gains weight when the carbohydrate content of the diet increases, as it has in the last 40 years. 

    Personally, after reading Taubes’ book in early 2010, I began a high-fat, low-carbohydrate, moderate protein diet (basically Atkins).  I have lost over 100 pounds, and am about 25 pounds from my goal weight.  At age 57, my HDL is 101 and my triglycerides are 61, indicating heart health.  Both metrics improved on the diet, and I take no medications for them.  Also, my A1c indicating pre-diabetes has been lowered to normal levels.  After years of trying and failing at low-fat diets, I have finally found what works for me, and it is NOT what the doctors and nutritionists have been telling us for 40 years.
    My point in discussing this is to emphasize that what we as a society think we know about obesity is NOT CORRECT, and that we will probably not make progress on this issue until we get the science right. 

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    February 28, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Thank you Susan, it is great to see that not all our medical community has sold us to the devil for their 30 pieces of silver.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    February 28, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I do think the sugar content of drinks for children should be regulated—but by FDA limits on the amount of sugar per serving rather than on taxes collected from poor people in an effort to make them stop buying high-sugar products.

    As others have said, education and exercise - absolutely.  Everyone needs to know the difference between “good” carbs (whole grains rather than refined flour, fresh fruit, fresh or frozen veggies) and “bad” (processed white flour, as in Wonder Bread, sugar and salt laden canned fruits and veggies), and the difference between “good” (plant-based) and “bad” fats (from red meat for instance).

    But to make it all work, we must be sure that every family can afford to buy the “good” and limit the “bad” to an occasional treat. Raising the minimum wage and/or food assistance may be expensive, but would pay for itself by reduced medical costs later.

  • Susan Misterek says:

    February 28, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Bill—FYI, my PhD is not in the medical or scientific areas.  I did add the PhD to my name because I believe it gives me some credibility to evaluate science.

  • KJC says:

    February 28, 2012 at 11:17 am

    What might be a Big Picture view?
    Our species history has not been kind to us in this area.  Way back when humans’ very physical existence was more tenuous, those that survived were “stress eaters.”  That is that the anticipation of trouble caused them to eat.  And those extra calories made the difference in getting them through tough times… keeping them in the gene pool.
    Now that very factor is having the opposite effect?
    As long as we had an innately physically active society (manual labor/ agriculture) to use up all those calories, this was workable, on the whole.
    Then came the industrial society, and a reduction of physical labor for some, and then the information society, with a reduction in physical activity for many.  In those conditions, automatic workday calorie burning just isn’t what it used to be.
    And stress in America has?  Gone way up, we feel at risk in so many ways, some politicians even like to deliberately drive fear up.
    If you add a reduction in the kind of daily physical work that naturally consumes lots of calories, to high stress levels… and to eating certain foods as status or “reward” (an advertising driven phenomena) and an obesity problem seems likely.
    Certainly many of the cheapest good-tasting foods tend to be high calorie, for example.  While we all know that “diet and exercise” are part of the fundamentals, I think stress is an often overlooked factor.  We pretend it’s not there.  When I look around America now I see a lot of stressed-out people (who have a built-in human evolutionary tendency towards weight gain.)     
    The many other valid points already on this thread build on that.

  • Beth Widell says:

    February 28, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Perhaps we need to consider nutritional education for all students. In this time of processed food choices, students need some in-depth education - not just 1 or 2 weeks tucked inside a health class. I believe that a class dedicated to nutrition training and preparation of nutritious meals would benefit everyone.

  • Kari Haug says:

    February 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I am a golf course architect, trained in Scotland, and a physical therapist.  While studying in Scotland, my health improved dramatically and I attribute it fully to not having a car (walking everywhere), playing golf (where golf carts are not allowed), and purchasing most meals at the ubiquitous fresh vegetable stands along my path home.  So I think the answer is to design walkable communities and provide a green grocer program that would reduce processed foods of all types, not just sugars.

  • Emily Moore says:

    February 28, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    It’s not just sugar that is causing the obesity problem; it’s the type of sugar. Different sugars have different metabolic pathways, resulting in more fat in some cases more than others. Also, some sugar substitutes - such as aspartame - have been shown to trigger cravings for more food. It is much more complicated than just sugar.

  • Beverly LaClair says:

    February 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Has anyone considered all the hormones and other additives that are put into our food??? They are given to livestock so they grow bigger and heavier. Many of our fruits and vegetables are also engineered to grow bigger. We consume these foodstuffs and I’m sure we are also consuming the stuff they have been infused with, there is no guarantee these “treatments” are out to the food we eat or what happens to humans that consume them.
    It’s not just sugar.

  • gwyn leder says:

    February 28, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    we have to look at the big picture.  Obesity is caused by a number of things including lack of exercise and eating more calories tahn your body can handle.  We need to educate and help people eat nutritional food.  Problem is the cost.  Healthy food costs more than food that is higher in calories and sugar

  • glenna johnson says:

    February 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I don’t believe “regulating” sugar will have an impact.
    Families need to start at home with information of the consequences of obesity and have the determination to make the right choices. Then the schools need to follow suit with healthy choices.
    I do not promote “diet” products with artificial sweetners.
    Promote the idea that this is your body, how do you want it to look and function?

    Michelle Obama has started a fabulous awareness of this issue, how desperately we need a force of young adults to follow her and promote her ideas.
    Maybe some athletes, musicians and actors could collaborate and suddenly eating right is the cool thing!

  • cathy says:

    February 29, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Sometimes obesity is caused by eating habits. For instance, some parents coach their kids to “clean their plate.” Or to eat like a “big boy.” Parents give second and third helpings to kids. Also, eating out has to be the worst problem. Fast foods are loaded with fats, calories and sodium. Parent education can not hurt. Sugar is not the demon, here.