While speaking at a recent gathering of the nation’s top experts on obesity, the New York City Health Commissioner delivered a sobering message by comparing obesity to cholera, a deadly disease that still rages around the world but last ravaged America a century ago.
I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Tom Farley speak at Obesity Week 2013 which was held Nov. 11-16 in Atlanta, Ga. After detailing the ongoing efforts of New York City to fight obesity on all fronts, Dr. Farley was given a standing ovation by a packed room of nearly 4,000 obesity researchers, bariatric surgeons, nutritionists and other allied health professionals.
The crowd was comprised of front-line fighters who are committed to treating obesity as a disease.
As far back as 2001, when he was a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health, Dr. Farley was comparing obesity to cholera. He noted that 150 years ago Americans were dying in enormous numbers from diseases associated with poor living conditions – overcrowding, dirty water and unsafe food. Back then, the government said that poor immigrants – the ones most likely to get sick and die – were “intemperate” and of “poor moral fiber” because they didn’t practice better personal hygiene.
In a sense, health officials were blaming the victims for their own demise.
As Farley points out, obesity is an environmental disease much like cholera, an infectious disease that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration and death. People no more want to be obese than they want to die of cholera – or any other preventable disease for that matter.
But our environment is so polluted with advertising for fast, cheap, high-calorie food that it’s hard for the average Joe or Jane to avoid contamination. Studies show that our food choices are affected, usually negatively, by advertising.
Farley noted that by the mid 1800s, the British government realized that everyone was “equal” in terms of susceptibility to disease. Even if people were rich enough to live in nice houses and drink fresh water, the entire society was impacted by disease and epidemics. By governing responsibly and comprehensively – and by guaranteeing fresh water and adequate housing – they dramatically lowered the rate of infection and mortality.
Farley quoted British preventative medicine expert Geoffrey Rose, who said, “The great public health reforms of the 19th century which led to such dramatic improvements were undertaken for people, rather than by people.”
Admittedly it’s hard to combat the onslaught of advertising surrounding food and drink. U.S. News Health noted that junk food makers spend billions advertising their unhealthy foods to children – as much as $10 billion a year. Most ads tout unhealthy products that are high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. These “bad foods” often feature cartoon characters or product giveaways that are enticing to our kids.
We’re not kidding when we say the average child will view about 5,500 food commercials a year. That breaks down to about 15 slick ads a day.
These commercials often promote high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, candy and snacks, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Compare that to the fewer than 100 TV ads per year kids see for healthy foods like fruits, veggies and bottled water.
Advertising could be viewed as a negative or a positive, too. But the scale is definitely tilted in the wrong direction!
Dr. Farley titled his keynote speech “Saving Gotham: New York City’s Attempts to Reverse the Obesity Epidemic.” The talk described his persistence and successful public advocacy. He stressed that it’s important to acknowledge the limits of “willpower” and the fallacy of continuing to blame the victims for disease.
He also said that when people are urged to consume cheap calories, everywhere they turn they’re more likely to be “infected” with this cholera-like disease of obesity. “We in New York City are paid to respond to epidemics and will continue to work on it until it ends,” he said.
Dr. Farley later tweeted, “NYC responding to obesity epidemic by increasing opps for physical activity, making healthy food more available + discouraging junk foods.”
How tweet it is, Dr. Farley – score one for the Big Apple!
About Obesity Week
Obesity Week is the largest international event focused on the basic science, clinical application, and prevention and treatment of obesity. The Obesity Society (TOS) and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) for the first time held their respective annual scientific meetings under one roof to unveil exciting new research, discuss emerging treatment and prevention options, and network and present with leaders in the field. The event was held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Ga.
Susan Burke March is Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator who, in her role as eDiets Chief Nutritionist, promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.