Prevention is the Cure

Obesity has now been cited as the leading cause of preventable death ahead of tobacco, with more than 61 percent of U.S. adults now considered obese, joined by young adults and teens in growing numbers. The medical costs for illness related to obesity is $117 billion a year.

We are constantly bombarded with information on how a growing number of Americans are overweight or obese, and how popular diets like Atkins or South Beach are helping Americans to lose weight. Due to the popularity of the Atkins diet, several chain restaurants now have adopted low-carb or Atkins-friendly menu suggestions. While efforts to improve public awareness of obesity and reduce obesity rates should be commended, simply sounding the alarm and promoting popular dietary fixes, ignores the severity of this epidemic. To make any progress in reversing this alarming trend, health care professionals need to embrace initiatives that focus on two critical objectives: prevention and health promotion. The very fact that these efforts may not provide overnight success is the reason they will work. This problem is not a quick fix or an eating plan away from being resolved; it will take slow, diligent educational efforts to reduce overweight and obesity rates in the United States.

A new initiative by the Partnership for Essential Nutrition will guide weight-conscious consumers who may be tempted by the promises of low-carb diets. Using multiple information channels to reach the public, the Partnership will provide specific information to the public about what carbohydrates are and what can happen when people don't get enough. The goal will be to raise awareness that carbohydrates contain essential nutrients that provide fuel for the brain and muscles, contain the fiber needed for proper stomach function, help to control body weight and have been demonstrated through numerous scientific studies to lower the risk for certain cancers, stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure.

To drive home these messages, the coalition will convey solutions-oriented information, including a series of television and print public service advertisements and a new Web site www.essentialnutrition.org.

"There is so much information about overweight and obesity, but not much guidance on what to do about it," said Jeffrey C. Lerner, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of ECRI, a nonprofit international health services research company.

ECRI is hoping to help change that by exploring a broad range of prevention, and treatment strategies and technologies at its 12th Annual Conference on Research Evidence, Health Policy, Law and Regulation Oct. 27 and 28 in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. (See Table 1 for Planned Sessions)

"This conference addresses critical issues. The focus will be on finding out which programs and strategies work to prevent overweight; how the community can effectively treat obesity and morbid obesity to reduce the known risks it brings for serious disease; and which public and private policy tools are being brought to bear on the issues," Lerner said.

In March, the Advertising Council, in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, launched a national public service advertising campaign designed to inspire Americans to pursue healthier lifestyles to prevent obesity and its resulting health risks. The program encourages Americans to take small steps within their current lifestyles to ensure effective, long-term weight control as opposed to making drastic changes.

The Web site, www.smallstep.gov, provides constant information and affirmation for Americans who incorporate small steps--physical and dietary tips--designed to get Americans healthy. The site provides 100 tips for healthy lifestyle changes.

"This program is both empowering and achievable. It provides entertaining and achievable ideas for healthier living, and includes activities that we all can make time for. It's not a crash diet that will ultimately leave us hungry and discouraged," said Tommy G.Thompson, Health and Human Services secretary.

Programs like Small Steps are realistic solutions aimed at reducing obesity rates because it promotes permanent lifestyle changes encouraging prevention and healthy choices. Programs that promote physical activity and an improved diet are more important than ever before. While quick fixes and overnight solutions are appealing, it will take small steps to reverse this alarming trend.

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of HME Business.

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