We are the fattest country in the world, in terms of the proportion of our citizens who are overweight or obese – about 70% of adults and 32% of children. Data from 1988 to 2010 showed that obesity increased in this time period, but average daily calorie intake was more stable. The proportion of adults who did not engage in physical activity increased markedly - from 19% to 52% in women and from 11% to 44% in men.
The impacts of this trend on individual well-being, the incidence of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and many cancers, and the cost of medical care and medical insurance are huge. Prevention is needed, and must be aimed at increasing the space and time for people to walk and play, and decreasing the desirability of sugar-laden drinks, salty snack food and junk food with empty calories. While it is easy to say this, public health officials and thinkers are struggling to come up with ways to reverse the trend.
University of Illinois researchers have written that easy access to junk food, even when vegetables are available and people exercise, is a major cause of the obesity epidemic. They think that reducing calorie intake from sweetened beverages and salty snacks would be more effective than convincing people to eat more vegetables. How can this be done? We live in a society that questions and dislikes regulations , and we are inundated with advertising for easily purchased fattening foods. Attempts to remove sweetened soda drinks from schools have not been successful nationwide, both because of school resistance (sales are a source of income) and because children buy the drinks elsewhere. Our local schools are an exception!
In general, taxes on sweetened soda drinks have failed at the ballot box- Richmond, CA tried to pass a soda tax in 2012 but the nay vote was 67%.
Michelle Obama has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to formulate nutrition standards for schools with predominately low income students. Starting this summer, these schools will receive financial aid to implement healthy breakfasts and lunches. These recommendations set limits on calories, salt, sugar and fat in foods and beverages, and also promote snack foods with more whole grains, low-fat dairy and fruits and vegetables. This is a start, especially if children are given instructions on food, cooking and gardening, and can raise some food at school.
It is also important to provide school activities beyond competitive sports, such as dancing, theater, martial arts, gym workouts and hiking. This will allow shy or ‘non-athletic’ students to find a way to be active that they can enjoy and pursue for a lifetime.
Cities must have sidewalks and parks, including pocket parks, and encourage the placement of markets and farmers’ markets where there are food deserts.
California is doing better than 45 other states with regard to the epidemic, but it’s hard to be satisfied with our rate of adult obesity of 24%. We have abundant produce and a beautiful out-of-doors. Something is drastically wrong. Food is a survival issue, a huge source of pleasure and of course an emotional issue – but it can kill us as well as nourish us. We are swayed by powerful financial interests to buy and eat or drink the wrong things for our bodies. Solving this problem will take many approaches, including a return to ancient wisdom and age old methods of cooking and eating found in each culture.
And now for some good news – about tomatoes and watermelon.
Lycopene is one of more than 600 carotenoids found in vegetables and fruits – it is the red pigment in tomatoes and watermelons. It is an antioxidant that substantially lowers the risk of many diseases. A study from Harvard showed that women with the highest blood levels of lycopene had a 50% lower risk of heart disease when followed for 5 years. Lycopene also lowers the risk of developing many cancers, including prostate, cervix, skin, bladder, breast, lung and digestive tract. It’s tomato season, so go for the deep red kind; include a little fat in your meal to help you absorb the lycopene – such as olive oil on your salad. Watermelon for dessert or in salad is another good choice for lycopene. In the winter, tomato paste or tomato sauce will give you abundant lycopene. Put a little, or a lot, in all your dishes. Tomatoes will give your dish 3 of the 5 tongue tastes – sweet, sour and umami flavor. (Salty and bitter are the other tastes in the mouth.) Umami taste is considered to be ‘meaty’ or ‘brothy’. It’s also found in mushrooms and meat, fish and poultry. We are so lucky to have great tomatoes this year.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH back issues on this blog