IOM weighs in on obesity epidemic

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As we reported earlier in the week, a new study from the CDC projected that 42 percent of American adults would be obese by the year 2030. And the current 34 percent obesity rate is hardly something to cheer about. So, who or what is responsible for the increased number of overweight and obese Americans over the past four decades? The Institute of Medicine (IOM), part of the National Academies of Science, says that we cannot continue to place all the blame on individuals themselves. Instead, says the IOM, the environment created by a variety of public policies is most responsible: A close look at zoning laws and farm policies, says the IOM, shows that “the average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment.”

In a 478-page report that was released this week at the Weight of the Nation Conference hosted by the CDC, the IOM observes that years of telling people to eat less and move around more have had no effect on the national obesity rate. The Institute instead calls for policy proposals that will make the U.S. environment more conducive to maintaining a healthy weight. For instance, the report documents zoning laws that have decreased the proportion of walkable areas since 1977, when the nation’s rate of obesity first began to rise. 

The report also observed that government subsidies of commodity crops such as wheat and cotton prohibit farmers from planting fruits and vegetables on land enrolled in those programs; the IOM recommends removing this ban so that U.S. farms can actually produce enough fresh produce for all Americans to eat the recommended amounts. Other recommendations included the always controversial issue of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and limiting the marketing of unhealthy foods aimed at children. However, the IOM emphasized that there is no single move alone that will reverse current trends in the obesity rate; these strategies must be implemented together.

Yet ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan takes issue with the idea that people can’t be expected to take responsibility for their own health. Furthermore, she says, “just because the IOM has endorsed ideas like taxing soda, this still does not make these measures a good idea.” 

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross is not any more impressed with the IOM report than Dr. Whelan, but he does point out that we need to address the fact that only 2 to 8 percent of public schools have daily physical education. “Getting kids in the habit of regular exercise — as well as making them aware of portion size, which has indeed increased over the past few decades — is probably the soundest way to promote personal responsibility for one’s health.”

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