The growing global obesity pandemic…and three simple steps you can take NOW to sidestep it

Get a load of the headline I recently stumbled across: “Global obesity response is ‘unacceptably slow,’ according to experts.”

Gee—ya think?

I have been fighting the obesity battle for over 20 years and have written four books on the topic. And yet there is no end in sight to this epidemic. But now, finally, the mainstream may be coming around to my way of thinking.

The prestigious medical journal the Lancet recently published a six-part series of papers collectively titled “Obesity 2015.” And the series calls for major changes in policy and practice at both a public-health and healthcare-provider level to rein in this worldwide problem.

A main theme in the series is that healthcare providers need better tools and training if they are to manage their patients effectively. I tend to disagree with that. The underlying problem with many mainstream physicians is the fact that they themselves are often overweight or obese. And if they can’t manage their own weight, how can they possibly help their patients do so?

Plus, there are a number of other factors involved that help explain why weight loss doesn’t take priority in mainstream medical practice. One reason is stigma and political correctness. “Experts” are now worried that taking a hard line on their patients’ weight equates to “body shaming.” (When really it equates to saving lives.) Top all of this off with the fact that insurance companies don’t like to pay for weight control. (Yet they have no problem paying for all the consequences of obesity—like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. Ironic, isn’t it?)

But, really, halting and reversing the obesity pandemic is going to take far more than giving doctors better “tools.” We have to make some sweeping changes in how we—as a society—our approach food, beverages, and physical activity. It’s simply not an optional choice anymore.

And it starts with how we feed our kids.

New estimates indicate that children in the United States, for example, are consuming an average of 200 more calories per day than they were in the 1970s. Of course, this jump earns the U.S. food industry $400 extra a year for each of those children. The total: $20 billion per year. But we’re paying for Big Food executives’ yachts with our kids’ lives.

Even sadder? It starts when they’re still infants.

One paper in the Lancet series states that the global market for processed infant foods is expected to be worth approximately $19 billion per year—up from $13.7 billion in 2007.

That one statistic alone paints most of the picture here—and truly angers me. The food industry has created a market for overly processed foods for babies. And their advertising campaigns prey on parents who want to do what’s best for their kids. The subliminal message in every baby food ad is clear: Buy all these foods or you’re a bad parent. If you care for your kids, you’ll feed them this.

Another example of how the food industry is manipulating the public: the introduction of so many products claiming to be “healthier alternatives.” But the fact is, many of these variations are actually less healthy than the foods they replace, because of all the artificial ingredients that go into them. But even if they are slightly better, there is a world of difference between “healthier” food and “healthy” food. (Take all those “gluten-free” and “low-carb” products on supermarket shelves. Just because they’re labeled with the right buzzwords doesn’t mean they’re actually good for you.)

All of these examples get right to the heart of the Lancet’s “executive summary” (an abstract of sorts) for this series, which is worth sharing here:

“Today’s food environments exploit people’s biological, psychological, social, and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods. This reinforces preferences and demands for foods of poor nutritional quality, furthering the unhealthy food environments. Regulatory actions from governments and increased efforts from industry and civil society will be necessary to break these vicious cycles.”

These papers pose some good solutions. Tighter supervision and international regulation of the food chain. An international code of food marketing (specifically to protect children). Regulation of the nutritional quality of food in schools. Mandatory food labeling. And last but certainly not least, taxes on unhealthy products and subsidies on healthier foods.

I’m on board for all of this. But I’m also not holding my breath for any of it. There are some local campaigns that have worked well, like the anti-soda NYC subway ads…but that’s hardly the same as major, nationally enforced legislation.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we absolutely have the tools to do this. Look at how the U.S. moved the needle in the area of tobacco consumption. If we could just do that with food, we would make major strides against obesity. But until we agree that food should be handled like any other controlled substance, we are doomed as a society to continue this deadly pattern.

But you as an individual are NOT doomed to continue this pattern. So here are a few, simple things you can do starting now to avoid falling victim to the obesity epidemic

First, stop watching TV health “gurus” and reading diet columns in magazines. And perhaps most importantly—ignore all the ads! They breathlessly make health promises, from “low fat!” to “good for your heart!” with no mention of the sugar, preservatives, and other garbage in their products. Do not give the fat-free industry ANY of your hard-earned cash.

Next, embrace fat. As I’ve written many times before, fat is not the enemy. In fact, healthy fats are a critical part of a nutritious diet because they help keep hunger at bay. I’m particularly fond of monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, which you’ll find in some of my favorite foods, like macadamia nuts and avocados. Research shows MUFAs can actually help you lose weight and keep it off.

And finally (for today, at least), break your takeout habit. This is a huge problem for a lot of my patients. Especially after a long day, when they just don’t feel like cooking. So I always suggest taking some time on Sunday to roast a chicken, cut up some fresh veggies, slice up a block of cheese, even make a big frittata. You can keep all of it handy in the fridge to nosh on during the week. A little forethought will help you stay healthier, and lose pounds along the way.

Because when you get right down to it, if we all take personal responsibility for our own health, we have the power to put an end to the deadly obesity epidemic—one well-planned meal at a time.


“Global obesity response is ‘unacceptably slow,’ according to experts.” Medical News Today, 2/19/15

“Obesity 2015,” The Lancet, epub ahead of print 2/18/15 (