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Obesity is a national health and labeling problem, expert tells statewide conference

December 13, 2014 | Community News and Media, Media Coverage

Originally published on

To find a solution to the nation’s ongoing obesity crisis, people first need to change the way they talk about it, one of the nation’s leading experts on obesity told a statewide audience of health and nutrition experts Wednesday in Edison.

Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University, told the crowd of about 300 that obesity is “the most stigmatized condition in our society.

“We can’t continue to confuse the identity with the disease,” Dietz said at the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids’ conference on Building Healthy, Equitable Communities.

“We should be talking about people with obesity in the same way we talk about people with diabetes,” he said. “We don’t talk about ‘cancer people.’ We don’t talk about ‘diabetes people’.”

Obesity, Dietz said, is not a choice, but a development caused by any number of personal and external factors.

Once the naming issue is settled, clinicians and other health officials have to figure out a way to galvanize public opinion against the condition in the way public attitudes changed about smoking.

“There has not been a united, grassroots movement around obesity,” said Dietz, the former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think that’s the challenge, is how do we build the kind of grassroots investment where things are learned and shared in the way they were around the tobacco use.”

A report by Trust for America’s Health and the foundation said New Jersey’s overall obesity rate was 26.3 percent of all adults in 2013. Among all African-Americans, the obesity rate was 34.5 percent, seven percentage points higher than the rate for Latinos and about 10 percentage points higher than the rate for whites.

Among 10-to-17 year-olds, however, the rate was 10 percent, one of the best rates for any state nationwide, they said.

Despite the lack of a united front, Dietz said the steady growth in obesity rates has moderated recently. Fourteen states — New Jersey is not one of them — have seen a decline in the prevalence of obesity, he said.

“Overall, we haven’t turned a corner,” he said, “but we may be turning the corner.”

Still, it is a significant health issue. According to the CDC, about 35 percent of all American adults are obese. For children and adolescents between the ages of 2-19, the rate of obesity is 17 percent – or 12.7 million individuals with obesity, CDC said.

People with obesity increase their risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and some cancers, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The underlying issues that drive obesity, Dietz said, are not based on whether an individual is rich or poor.

They have more to do, he said, with body image, so while African-American women have disproportionately high rates of obesity, they have lower rates of eating disorders than white women.

That poses another challenge to clinicians: How do they reverse the strong obesity trend in African-American women “in a way that doesn’t make [them] crazy about their weight the way white women and girls already are?”

Because overweight children have a high likelihood to become obese as adults, it makes sense to instill changes in the systems they use, Dietz said. Switching from whole milk to low-fat milk, eliminating high-calorie, empty snacks and having fresh fruit and vegetables at every meal would help. Schools could take a new look at recess time, physical education classes and encourage in-class activities to help kids burn off energy and make themselves more alert for learning, Dietz said.

The conference focused on equity, as well as health, and Dietz and other speakers emphasized that what works for one group might not work for another.

For example, legislators could direct money to build playgrounds and sidewalks in urban communities, but that spending might not make sense in rural areas, he said. The proof is in data that shows obesity rates varying for males and females, as well as ethnic groups, he said.

Like Dietz, other speakers during the daylong conference said creative thinking is necessary to attack the problem on different fronts.

Dr. Robert C. Like, director of the Center for Healthy Families and Cultural Diversity, said a problem like obesity should be viewed not just as a weight issue, but an issue of weight, health and, in many cases, a chronic disease such as diabetes. He called it not an epidemic, but a “snydemic.

“Many times, different disease have shared underlying causes,” Like said. Experts experts might want to consider “diabecity.”

Dwayne C. Proctor, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Eliminating Health Disparities Portfolio, said research on adverse childhood events – things like witnessing violence, or having parents divorce, or observing substance or alcohol abuse – shows that problems started in childhood can manifest themselves later in life. That means addressing family, environmental and neighborhood issues as matters of health, he said.

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