Do we finally have a solution to the obesity epidemic?

In order to reverse the American obesity epidemic that has left 1 out of 3 children and 2 out of 3 adults overweight, the nation needs to pool its resources to implement a number of sweeping initiatives, according to a 462-page report issued Tuesday by the influential Institute of Medicine.

While the report has earnest goals, the suggested measures have been underscored and proclaimed by others time and time again: make activity a routine part of the day; make nutritious foods cheap and accessible; get schools to implement an hour of daily activity and teach nutrition classes; make obesity prevention part of routine medical care; and force food manufacturers to stop marketing junk food to kids.

So what’s new here? Not much, the Institute’s panel of experts admitted at a press conference Tuesday morning in Washington DC. “We took a systems approach in this report,” said panel member Shiriki Kumanyika, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “If we only change one thing, we won’t see an effect.” The latest data suggest that combining various approaches will “accelerate progress”—two catch words repeated throughout the report—and reverse the trend.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Sounds promising, but the problem may prove to be too intractable. A study published yesterday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at national obesity data from 1990 through 2008 and concluded that if Americans stayed on the same trajectory upward, more than half of us will be obese by 2030. (That’s compared to about a third of us now.)

“Progress has been slow,” said panel chair Daniel Glickman, former secretary of the US Department of Agriculture. “You can have all the data in the world, and if nobody wants to do anything with it, nothing happens. Everyone in this country has to make this happen.”

Tufts University nutritionist Christina Economos added that she hoped those in state and local leadership positions would use the reports “as a tool and catalyst” to demand changes for their children like a built community that makes it easy to bike to work, get to a safe playground, or walk from place to place.

The panel of 16 experts—a mixture of lawyers, health policy makers, health care executives and obesity researchers—sorted through 800 previously published recommendations for obesity prevention, examining the latest evidence for each of them and whether it was strong enough to fold into the five main goals.

Detailed recommendations include launching social marketing campaigns to alter health behaviors like the consumption of sugary beverages and getting schools to ban soda, chips, and sweets in vending machines, a measure that’s about to be implemented in Massachusetts public schools.

Other recommendations may be far tougher to get underway like passing laws that limit what food manufacturers can market to kids or revamping U.S. farm policy to shift federal subsidies away from corn and soybeans—used to make high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oil—and towards produce sources like cruciferous vegetables and fruit trees.

While the American Heart Association and several other health organizations issued statements praising the Institute’s recommendations, the American Beverage Association released a statement claiming the report’s proposed policies embrace “discriminatory policies that uniquely focus on sugar-sweetened beverages.”