Global failure to reverse obesity epidemic demands new ways of thinking

boy with beverage

For immediate release: February 18, 2015

Boston, MA ─ To combat the failure of countries to reverse the global obesity epidemic, authors of a new paper are calling for “smart food policies” by governments, alongside joint efforts from industry and society, to improve food environments and make healthy eating easier.

Lead author Christina Roberto, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues call the view that obesity is driven by either personal choice or the environment a false dichotomy, and suggest that these competing perspectives be merged to show the reciprocal relationship between the individual person and the places where they live and eat.

The paper is one of a six-part series on obesity in The Lancet, published online February 18, 2015.

Global progress towards tackling obesity has been “unacceptably slow,” according to the series authors, with only one in four countries implementing a policy on healthy eating by 2010.

“While we need to acknowledge that individuals bear some responsibility for their health, we also need to recognize that today’s food environments exploit people’s vulnerabilities and make it easier to eat unhealthy foods,” said Roberto. “This reinforces preferences and demands for foods of poor nutritional quality, leading to environmental changes that further encourage consumption of unhealthy foods.”

Although there have been isolated pockets of progress, no country to date has reversed its obesity epidemic, according to Roberto and colleagues. Among the barriers to action are lobbying from the food industry, restricted ability or unwillingness of governments to implement policies, and an absence of pressure from civil society for political action.

The authors support the policy actions proposed in the NOURISHING framework created by the World Cancer Research Fund International to promote healthy diets. The framework covers three broad areas: the food environment (e.g., nutrition labeling, advertising restriction, and food taxes), the food system (e.g., supply-chain incentives for production), and behavior-change communication (e.g., nutrition-counseling interventions and public awareness campaigns).

Another paper in the series, co-authored by Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology at Harvard Chan School, calls attention to the rise of child overweight and obesity—substantial in high-income countries and now rapidly increasing in poorer countries. The authors of that paper call for more regulation of advertising to children in addition to integrated nutrition policies that tackle both obesity and malnutrition, which co-exist in children around the world.

Roberto, along with Kelly Brownell from Duke University, also co-authored a commentary as part of the series that proposes a model for tightening the flow of information between researchers and policy makers in order to ensure that research addresses issues relevant to policy and that research findings can inform decision-making.

“Patchy progress on obesity prevention: emerging examples, entrenched barriers, and new thinking,” Christina A. Roberto, Boyd Swinburn, Corinna Hawkes, Terry T-K Huang, Sergio A. Costa, Marice Ashe, Lindsey Zwicker, John H. Cawley, Kelly D. Brownell, The Lancet, online February 18, 2015, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)61744-X.

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Todd Datz



Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.