You may not realize it, but America has been going down an unhealthy path. By 2030, 60% of the American population will either be obese or overweight. There are serious ramifications to this, such as the rising costs of healthcare and shortened life expectancy. In turn, I am beginning a series that looks to tackle this issue and bring this issue to light. My first interview is with Dana Hunnes, dietitian at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Jacob: What are the root causes of the obesity uprising? What are the health effects of obesity?
Dana: Getting to basics, the root cause is that we are simply eating more than we are burning off through exercise and/or leisure activity. There are myriad effects of obesity and its concurrent chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancers, to name a few. We are dying younger, we are dying sicker, and we are leading lower-quality lives that are far more expensive because of rising healthcare/sick-care costs (in a nutshell).
Jacob: Are food companies to blame for their massive budgets in advertising? Do we blame our government for being too passive towards what goes into our food?
Dana: I think there are many different factors that go into obesity. Yes, food companies are in part to blame because their goal is to make profits. They sell cheap foods that are bad for us and gain them a lot of money and followers. I believe food companies are to blame for advertising at children. Children do not have the mental capacity to decipher subversive and/or subliminal messaging designed to get them to eat more, especially if their favorite character is hyping up the food item. I have a five-year old son. I have taught him healthy nutrition from the beginning, so he can decipher what has too much sugar or foods that we shouldn't eat too much of, but not every child has a dietitian or a PhD for a mother (who has focused on some of these issues). Also, parents are not 100% to blame. We live in an era of decision fatigue. WE work hard, we have long hours, we make so many decisions in a day that sometimes saying no to a child who is requesting a food item is difficult. So, yes, in some ways, food companies are to blame. I do also believe that our government and the governmental organizations that are supposed to protect our health (FDA, USDA, CDC, etc.) are far too passive about what goes into our foods. Deregulation has been the norm for our current administration, while the previous administration tried to get healthier foods into schools (it was imperfect, but better than now). The current administration has made school lunches unhealthy again, and basically bows to the food companies, dairy industry, egg industry, meat industry, etc., allowing them to run the show.
Jacob: What ways can we curb and even reverse obesity rates?
Dana: With a multi-pronged approach. There probably needs to be some sort of regulation on the part of the government. There needs to be more educational campaigns, better outreach by public health industries, better access to primary care and prevention, and better insurance programs that will cover nutrition services and/or other services such as physical activity. There needs to be a role in local communities as well, to make outdoor spaces more walkable and safer. There are a lot of things that need to happen to curb/reverse obesity rates. Yes, people are ultimately responsible for what goes in their mouths and bodies, but there are many barriers (financial, institutional, governmental, local, etc.) that either help or hinder these choices.
Jacob: What role does parenting have in the epidemic regarding our children?
Dana: We are our children's first teachers and role models. If we don't display healthy relationships with food, we can't expect them to. So, parents definitely have a role, especially in the early years to give our children healthy choices that are low in salt, low in sugar, and as natural and healthful as possible.
Jacob: McDonalds has been notorious for their predatory advertising towards children regarding the Happy Meal, with publications like the Chicago Tribune publishing about their practices. What can be done about McDonalds and what can you get from this?
Dana: I think many companies have predatory advertising practices. I think there needs to be more regulations on what can be advertised to children and who can do it. I don’t think they will “police” themselves very well… Unless of course, they can find a way to boost their profits by changing their practices and advertising only their fruit bowls to children with their favorite Disney characters.
Jacob: Americans are snacking more than ever. Is this an alarming trend?
Dana: Yes, we live in a 24/7 food environment. Historically, our ancestors were not snacking all the time. They were gathering, possibly hunting, but most gathering, and being very active leaving little time to just sit and snack. This is definitely an alarming trend.
Jacob: Mental health, I.e. stress and depression, has also been a hot button issue in America. How is having a good diet linked to being in a good state of mental being?
Dana: I have seen associations with mental health and diet. Healthy diets may help improve mental health by making us feel better about ourselves in addition to feeling better by the healthful nutrients we are putting in our bodies. Depression has multiple causes, but there may be links to missing nutrients (micronutrients, vitamins/minerals), and/or unbalanced diets. Obesity also messes with our hormones and their natural homeostasis, which can affect our mental health, of course. So, there is decent evidence to support the link that healthy diets may improve overall wellbeing and self-efficacy and that a good wellbeing and self-efficacy may improve our diets.
Jacob: Southern and midwestern states are notorious for their high obesity rates. What is the cause of the high obesity rates in these regions? Is it based on their regional cuisine or is there something more? What can these regions do to curb this problem?
Dana: Unfortunately, many of these states also tend to have lower-income populations and minority populations which are more likely to have lower access to health services, more sedentary jobs, more jobs (longer working hours), lower levels of education, and food deserts. Of course, I am generalizing, but these are usually factors that contribute to higher obesity rates. Additionally, yes, regional cuisines can make a difference in obesity rates and southern cooking tends to be higher in fat, higher in salt, and higher in calories overall.
Jacob: Sugar: Surprisingly, this is the staple of American cuisine and is found almost everywhere. Why do food companies add sugar to their foods, even when they don’t need sugar (the same can be asked about salt)?
Dana: Food companies sell foods to make profits. They have food scientists on board coming up with flavor profiles that will be most pleasing to most people. This usually involves salt and sugar, especially when foods are lower in fat and so the sensations that we would get from fat have to be made up in other flavors, often sugar and salt. Also, sugar is a cheap filler in many foods, so even though a food may not need sugar, it is still a cheaper ingredient than perhaps something else.
Jacob: Are organic foods a better alternative?
Dana: Depends on the food. If it’s organic “oreo-like sandwich cookies”, then I’d say no. If it is organic zucchini vs. conventional, then the answer might be yes.
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