Prevention most effective focus for reducing obesity rates

Close up on a fast food drive through sign, with palm trees and buildings in the background

December 12, 2023 — Since 1980, obesity has tripled in U.S. adults and quadrupled in children. This dramatic rise parallels the increased accessibility of cheap, unhealthy foods at all hours of the day, which has created an environment where it is very easy to consume excess calories. Speaking on a November 24 episode of Colloquy, a podcast from Harvard Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, nutrition policy expert Sara Bleich said that obesity rates are predicted to continue rising—with people of color and lower-income populations disproportionately affected—but that change is possible.

“It is so much harder to lose weight than to keep it off in the first place. If we want to make inroads around the problem of obesity, we have to focus on prevention,” said Bleich, who is professor of public health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, vice provost for special projects at Harvard University, director of social sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a faculty member at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a former director of nutrition security and health equity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Biden administration.

Bleich said that health insurance coverage needs to expand, particularly for people from historically underserved populations, so that people can better afford obesity treatment and preventive services.

She also noted initiatives that the federal government is taking to improve access to healthy food, including boosting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and expanding accessibility of online food purchasing for recipients, and working to better align standards for school meals and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) food packages with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Listen to the Colloquy episode: Why We’re Obese—and What We Can Do about It

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