Science holds answer to America's obesity issue

The new year inherently brings about resolutions for making ourselves better, and for many people those likely include weight loss.

Dr. Nevil Speer

January 23, 2017

4 Min Read
Science holds answer to America's obesity issue

The new year inherently brings about resolutions for making ourselves better, and for many people those likely include weight loss. It's a daily battle -– especially in an era of plentiful food and sedentary lifestyles. Our resolve to fight the battle is more important than ever.

A recent editorial in The Lancet's (Obesity and Diabetes in 2017: A New Year) draws attention to that reality. The column cites data from England. Between 1991-1993 and 2011-2013, the proportion of overweight or obese individuals has increased from 66.7 to 76.8% for men, and from 54.8% to 63.4% for women.

But the problem stretches even beyond the U.S. or Europe. Perhaps no one explains the global dilemma better than Joe Quinlan (chief market strategist, U.S. Trust). In a recent Bloomberg Surveillance interview, Quinlan explained that,

“Obesity is emblematic of convergence of lifestyles and higher per capita incomes. Whether it's Brazil, whether it's China, or other parts of emerging markets, it's increased presence of processed foods and sedentary lifestyles. Instead of working in a factory on Saturday, you've got people in a mall... When you live in a rural area, you're typically working, gathering wood, you're riding a bike, you're working in a field, you're very active. When you're in the city, you're typically going to an office, riding in a cab and so forth. It's a huge change and it's really playing out across Asia – and Africa as well.”

Meanwhile, the Word Health Organization cites that the number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. What’s more, WHO states the prevalence of diabetes has been rising more rapidly in middle- and low-income countries.

Clearly, solving our weight and diabetes issues is far more complicated than simply reducing how much we eat. To that end, The Lancet Commission on Obesity is due out with a new report in 2018 examining the roles of nutrition, physical activity, food systems, etc.; and that all makes sense.

As with any epidemic, however, there’s always the tendency to overreach when trying to find a solution. Not surprisingly, the Commission on Obesity is looking at agriculture's role (that’s a tired argument). But wait, it gets worse yet. The commission even includes climate change as a potential causation factor. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that GHG emissions affects (consciously or subconsciously) our eating habits. (That’s probably an entire article by itself.)

And then of course, there’s the ever-prevalent finger-pointing at meat. I recently ran across an article from the Food and Farm Discussion Lab outlining key drivers of the worldwide obesity epidemic. There’s lots of talk about increasing physical inactivity. But the primary driver? You guessed it -- meat: "An increase in meat consumption and animal fats could lead people to becoming overweight."

Nobody dispels that logic better than Gary Taubes in his new book, The Case Against Sugar. Taubes explains that:

“At its simplest, this focus on dietary fat -– specifically from butter, eggs, dairy, and fatty meats –- emerged from a concept that is now knows as a nutrition transition: As populations become more affluent and more urban, more “Westernized” in their eating habits and lifestyle, they experience an increased prevalence of these chronic diseases. Almost invariably, the dietary changes include more fat consumed (and more meat) and fewer carbohydrates. This isn’t always the case, however, which should have been considered a critical factor in the nutritional debates than ensued. The Inuit, for instance, pastoral populations like the Masai in Kenya, or South Pacific Islanders like those on the New Zealand protectorate of Tokelau, consumed less fat, (and in some cases less meat) over the course of their relevant nutrition transitions, and yet they, too experienced more obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (and cancer as well.) These populations are the counter-examples that suggest that this dietary-fat hypothesis is wrong.”

As explained in one of my columns several years ago, the obesity rate during the past 30 years more than doubled in the U.S. Meanwhile, overall meat consumption is nearly flat compared during that time -– not to mention red meat consumption has declined as part of that overall trend. But somehow, someway, we're still getting fatter. There’s simply no foundation to blaming obesity on meat.

Bringing this all back around, there’s encouraging signs the scientific community is beginning to objectively tackle the complexities -– including food habits and changing lifestyles over time -- associated with diabetes and obesity from a global perspective. And with that, The Lancet is right: “Individuals, clincians and governments should use this new year to reflect on the reality of health in 2017…obesity and diabetes should not become the new normal.” But the keyword there is “reality.” So, while we are seemingly making progress –- work remains. Looking for false, or politically expedient, solutions won’t get us to the right endgame.

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