The Long Road to Healthier Living

April 10, 2014 | 10:57 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

In February, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published data in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that obesity rates for pre-school-aged children are declining. On Monday, a different team of scientists published a study in JAMA Pediatrics which found no such decline, and also that rates of severe childhood obesity are climbing. Both studies agreed that overall child obesity rates have stalled for the last decade.

An article in USA Today reported on these two studies and insinuated that the CDC was spinning its numbers to support First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. Mrs. Obama is quoted in the CDC’s press release.

photo of obese teenager's torso

We should look to long-term studies that pull in many data points to measure the effectiveness of America’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity. Let’s Move! and many local efforts have dramatically elevated discussion about diet-related illness and brought forward innovative ways to address it. Photo: Flickr user FBellon

So what is one to believe?

The short answer is that both studies should be interpreted cautiously. When we look at public health, it’s important to put more weight on long-term epidemiological studies that pull in many data points and have many participants, to account for short-term variations.

The road to healthier living is a long one. Individual research studies will continue to emerge that will further inform the long-term trends in childhood obesity. It’s important to resist considering any individual study to be definitive—even as people, politicians and companies on all sides of the issue use the media to shape public perception of the best way forward, and even as opinion writers and reporters continue to jump on every new study as “proof” of one position or another.

So what has Let’s Move! accomplished so far?

Without a doubt, the campaign has dramatically elevated public discussion of diet-related illnesses. Childhood obesity is now a high-profile, national issue with significant resources dedicated to addressing it. Resources and attention can bring innovation and experimentation with different interventions to give kids a better chance for long, healthful lives.

And while the impact of one specific program may be difficult to quantify, many of us know from our own personal experiences with family and friends that when approaching diet and other personal behaviors affecting our health, conversation is often a necessary catalyst for first steps, and a critical support for sustained change over time. On a national level, discussion and debate can have similar effects, ultimately leading to policies that support the recommendations of leading medical and nutrition researchers, and eventually the choices available to families and individuals.

farmers-market-girl-plumsThe White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity produced a multi-agency report  in 2010 suggesting a number of ways to better connect food consumption to public health science, from more healthy eating options at military bases to more breastfeeding promotion at hospitals—innovations that are now being realized, aided by policy in the form of the Child Nutrition Act of 2010, the Affordable Care Act, and certain provisions of the new Farm Bill. Overall, it’s refreshing and encouraging that as a nation we’ve focused on the problem of childhood obesity and that we are trying to formulate science-based policy solutions. That’s how an advanced society should work.

There is no doubt that the First Lady’s efforts are an important part of a huge surge of public interest in food system reform. Other evidence of this trend:

Increasing Collaboration and Making Progress

On May 6 in Minneapolis, UCS will convene public health experts, government officials, advocates, and engaged citizens from throughout the United States to explore how science can help advance healthier food environments. You can add your voice to the discussion by sharing your experiences with and ideas about healthy food policy, or signing up to participate in the forum in person or via webcast.

People around the country are making the connection between public health and food policy, developing innovative local initiatives that complement the work of Let's Move! to make food systems more healthful and economically beneficial.

People around the country are making the connection between public health and food policy, developing innovative local initiatives that complement the work of Let’s Move! to make food systems more healthful and economically beneficial.

People, organizations, and communities across the country are making the connection between public health and food policy. Pennsylvania’s Healthy Fresh Food Financing Program invested in the infrastructure necessary for corner stores in neighborhoods to offer high quality fruits and vegetables. The program proved such a success, that it was integrated into the federal Farm Bill. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council established Good Food LA to utilize the city’s institutional purchasing power to reshape the city’s foodshed. And Michigan’s Good Food Charter is synchronizing the state’s policy and institutional resources to make the food system more healthful and economically beneficial—an idea that is influencing policies of neighboring Great Lakes states.

Improving the food system and related health outcomes, for a person or a country, is a long-term, complex challenge that requires open dialogue and – let’s be honest – a lot of patience and persistence.  Just as individuals trying to improve their own health should be careful not to chase fads, or be overly discouraged by one day’s reading on a scale, policymakers and the public should take a long-term view of this challenge, even as we move to narrow the gap between public policy and our growing knowledge of public health and behavioral science.

Through Let’s Move! and a host of complementary policy initiatives, many of them renewed, strengthened or newly created in the recent Farm Bill, as well as millions of conversations among families, friends, and advocates across the country, it’s clear that a movement is building to encourage healthier food environments for all Americans.