Opinion: Culture change key to countering obesity epidemic

By Maren Stewart

Colorado is officially the leanest state in the nation, with a 19.8 percent adult obesity rate, according to the F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future report released in July based on data collected from 2008 to 2010 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health.

While some Coloradans may consider the ranking a victory for the state, many local health organizations are urging residents to consider all the facts before celebrating. For example, despite its top ranking, Colorado’s obesity rate has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, and today one in five Coloradans are obese and more than half of our population (56.2 percent) is either overweight or obese. Even though Colorado’s current obesity rate may sound positive when compared to Mississippi’s 34.4 percent obesity rate (the worst in the nation), consider that a 19.8 percent obesity rate would have garnered Colorado the title as the most obese state in the nation in 1995 – just over a decade ago.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) also points to the health disparities among the different regions of Colorado and among minority populations. Colorado African-American and Latino populations have obesity rates of 27.9 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively, as compared to Caucasians at 18.3 percent. In addition to the minority obesity rates, children are also at risk. In Colorado, 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese. Without a drastic change, overweight children are going to grow up to be overweight adults.

Generally speaking, the highest rates of obesity in Colorado are in the southeast region of the state, followed with the northeast. In addition to geographic isolation, both regions have corresponding high rates of poverty and unemployment. These factors illustrate the complexity of  addressing obesity and the necessity of working in partnerships across the state.

“Take a walk around your office, neighborhood, or grocery store.  More than half of the adults you see are either overweight or obese,” says Chris Lindley, Director of CDPHE’s Prevention Services Division.  Lindley adds that “we intend to reverse this epidemic threatening our health and welfare by working with advocacy groups, other government agencies, school districts, and citizens across Colorado.”

Many Colorado organizations, including CDPHE, the Colorado Health Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, and LiveWell Colorado and others are partnering to inspire sustainable individual behavior change and improve Coloradans’ access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity – two vital strategies to prevent and reduce obesity.

LiveWell Colorado launched a culture change marketing campaign in May, and Coloradans have calculated more than 180,000 “gut checks” at livewellcolorado.org. This online tool helps people identify if they are healthy at their current weight and offers simple ways to learn to make better choices. As more Coloradans become aware that obesity is not someone else’s problem, they are adopting healthier habits and will eventually engage in policy efforts to make environments more conducive to those healthy habits.

Through a collaborative process with many partners, LiveWell Colorado has also developed a series of Policy Blueprints to guide statewide efforts in the areas of Food Access, Worksite Wellness and the Built Environment. These blueprints help to inform efforts and have resulted in legislative successes, such as the creation of Colorado’s first-ever Food Systems Advisory Council focused on improving access to healthy food within Colorado. The Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Policy Group, comprised of multi-sector partners and stakeholders, recently led the successful passage of a bill which ensures Colorado elementary students get 30 minutes of physical activity each day.

Being dubbed the leanest state in the nation when adult obesity rates did not decline in any state last year, and in fact increased in 16 states, is a dubious honor. However, it is obvious that momentum is already underway to improve Colorado’s health and establish a successful obesity prevention model for other states to emulate.

Maren Stewart, JD,  is president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit focused on preventing and reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. Find out more atLiveWellColorado.org.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.
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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Culture change key to countering obesity epidemic

  1. Indeed, a cultural change is necessary, and long overdue, but seems unlikely in the current political and commercial environment. Cries of “nanny state” are probably already echoing down some Colorado corridor, and perhaps with some validity, though not for the reasons that those issuing the warning would likely concur.

    We live in a commercial culture that has become – at least in terms of this particular issue – a toxic one. Quite a bit of lip service is devoted to “healthy eating” and “physical activity,” but the advertising dollars and the popular culture support fast food, extra-large portions, and evenings and weekends spent in front of the television. That various fast-food chains offer salads does nothing to negate the fact that the vast majority of their advertising dollars go into the promotion of high-fat, high-calorie, and usually cholesterol-laden industrial food that, inside the corporation, is typically not referred to as “food” at all, but is instead labeled “product.”

    The companies that take in the substantial majority of “eating out” dollars spend a huge amount of money on advertising – it’s a capitalist society, after all, and without sales, there is no company and no jobs – and they also employ “consultants” and lobbyists galore at every level that might be able to institute meaningful limits or regulation. The sole purpose of those people is to prevent regulation in any meaningful way, and if prevention isn’t possible, to at least minimize the influence of any regulation on the profitability of company operations.

    Philosophically, I’m in agreement. What you eat is a choice you make, and no one is being forced at gunpoint to eat a triple McBurger with cheese food product stuff added to the bacon and mayo-based “special sauce.” That holds true for the large fries that typically accompanies such an “entree,” though many people still order a diet soda with the meal, as if the drink will somehow cancel all the negative effects of what they’re eating.

    Philosophy aside, however, it’s not a fair contest. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to advertise “food” that’s just barely nutritional, and usually not healthy, especially for a population trending toward the obese. That advertising drowns out the faint, plaintive voice from some government agency – underfunded by design because, after all, we don’t want the “nanny state” telling us what to do – that there are better alternatives for every meal than what’s usually seen on TV.

    Toss in poverty, the time necessary to prepare healthier meals in a population where there’s often not a stay-at-home parent, the relative costliness of high-quality ingredients at the grocery as opposed to empty calories and carbohydrates, and it’s a recipe for a continuation of the current trend, with all the very expensive health care implications that go with it. Add a media culture that emphasizes “sports” at the expense of “fitness,” and it only makes the recipe more difficult to overcome. Everything I read says that a sedentary lifestyle is at least as damaging to one’s health as a diet that’s mostly fast food, but that’s not a message that shows up with any frequency or intensity on television.

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