A little over a year ago American Heart Association made the a projection that the obesity epidemic would reach a level where 83% of American men and 72 % of women will be overweight or obese in 2020. The percentage today is 72 and 63 percent respectively. But recent news suggest that general obesity levels have stagnated. So has childhood obesity.
I think the key here is the word projection. Many forecasts are simply extrapolations of current trends, overlooking the possibility that trends may discontinue. Ironically gloomy extrapolations can actually in themselves prevent their own prophecy from materializing when they foster enough motivation to counteract the projected tendencies.
When I wrote the piece Generation Z – Forecasts and Formula in May of 2011 I predicted that the children of tomorrow are not automatically going to be plagued by higher obesity rates than the childhood generation or today and yesteryears. The reason is because with increasing attention to the problem, unhealthy foods and lifestyle patterns are on track to go the same way cigarettes did. Maybe even in spite of the powerful lobbyists and stakeholders who may lose from such a shift.
The only thing I didn’t foresee is how soon we would start to see these changes. When I saw that CDC reported that obesity has stagnated in the general population a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure if this signaled a true trend reversal or just coincidence. I’m still not sure, but seeing that obesity stagnation coincides with lower calorie intake among children gives me the hunch that maybe a structural shift is on the way.
Don’t get me wrong. Stagnation at a level where 17% of all children are obese is far from ideal. Hopefully this trend will follow a pendulum pattern where not only fewer people become overweight, but where also those who have pounds to lose can successfully drop some.
What are the changes that may contribute to the trend stagnation and possible future reversal?
Public Awareness. University of Tennessee professor Michael Zemel says that “it was fairly uncommon, even taboo, for doctors to openly discuss obesity with their patients just 20 years ago. This has now changed.” First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has motivated a wide spectrum of parents, business leaders, educators, elected officials, military leaders, chefs, physicians, athletes, childcare providers, community and faith leaders to improve the health of our nation’s children. Maybe we are starting to see some effects?
Sugar. If the villain of the 1990s was fat, the villain the past decade or so has been sugar. From the more extreme diet plans like Atkins to the more easily adopted ‘common sense’ approaches, sugar is now associated not only with it’s superflous calories, but it’s propensity to disrupt the insulin system and set off vicious cycles that result in weight gain when consumed in large doses. Some scientists claim sugar have addictive properties. It is interesting to see how consumption of sugar and corn based sweeteners have stagnated similar to that of obesity rates.
Schools. Cities that have taken drastic steps to improve healthy lifestyle choices in schools can report not only stagnating, but declining levels of childhood obesity. Banning sugary drinks in soda machines, healthier school lunch menues and more physical activity at school can go a long way.
Restaurants. Not only are we eating less out, but when we eat out we expect more nutritional information. The reduction in restaurant visits are particularly seen among Millennials, and reflects their lacking funds as much as healthful choices. Precisely because people show increased nutritional awareness they would rather dine in than go for low-cost, unhealthy alternatives. In other words McDonalds is not Chipotle’s main competitor, the local farmer’s market is.
In the future we will probably see more physically immersive video games that are both mentally and physically more strenuous than passively grazing in front of the TV. Mobile apps and self monitoring of health via “Lab-on-a-chip” technologies make it more difficult to lie to yourself – especially when combined with social media bragging rights for vain health nuts. Nutritional trends, e.g. locavore trends, various vegetarian and/ or organic trends etc. play on social identify and keep disciples in line via peer pressure and symbolic consumer behaviors. If food and water supply grows scarcer or continue to be tied to agricultural and food industry of questionable ethics, belonging to the “right side” will only grow in importance. I can only see this trend continue with the Homelanders, particularly in progressive, urban areas.
What do you think? Will AHA’s 2020 projections come to fruition after all. If not, are there other observations that will affect obesity levels in the future?