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Op-ed: World Obesity Day reminds us that there's no time like the present

David Sarwer, the College of Public Health's associate dean for research, professor of social and behavioral sciences and director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE), says that we all have a role to play in addressing obesity.

Today is World Obesity Day. Across the planet, policy experts, researchers, professional organizations, and clinical treatment providers across a range of specialties have joined together in calling on governments, insurers, and philanthropic organizations to prioritize investment in addressing the world's obesity problem. The message is specific: to invest more in treatment, early intervention, and prevention of obesity--or, as the slogan for the day says, "Treat obesity now and avoid the consequences later."

Obesity continues to be a growing public health issue for the world's citizens. Western countries like the United States are among those most profoundly affected by the disease. Over the last several decades, we have seen many countries move toward a Westernized economy and lifestyle, only to see the obesity problem rise dramatically soon after these sociocultural changes begin. These trends are a reminder of the powerful impact of the environment on the obesity problem.

In the United States, there is some evidence to suggest that the rise in obesity is slowing--but the condition is already widespread. The disease now affects over 30% of all American adults and even larger percentages of persons from underserved and underrepresented groups. In Philadelphia, two-thirds of adults and 40% of children and adolescents are obese or overweight. Persons who are overweight are at great risk to transition to obesity as they move through their lives, in large part because of the powerful environmental factors that promote the consumption of high calorie foods and beverages and that limit opportunities for individuals to engage in recommended levels of physical activity.

Despite widespread recognition of the role of the environment in the proliferation of obesity, the disorder can be quite personal. Many individuals are quick to assume that the reason obesity occurs is because of an individual's personal failings or lack of will power. Others assume that obesity is a mental illness, rather than appreciating that it is a physical disease that comes with a significant psychosocial burden, particularly in cultures that idolize thinness.

As a result, many persons with obesity feel stigmatized or are discriminated against because of their excess weight. Growing evidence now tells us that these experiences not only increase the psychosocial burden of obesity, but can also negatively affect an individual's physical health as well. Experiences of stigma and bias may lead some individuals to avoid seeking health care, and as a result, they may not be able to benefit from strategies to prevent or detect many health conditions.

Successfully combating the disease of obesity cannot be done in isolation. While each of us needs to look for opportunities to engage in healthy behaviors when possible, the scope of the obesity problem requires efforts by many groups--the medical professions, community groups, business stakeholders, and political organizations--at the local, state, national and international levels. We need these efforts to combat the disease in those currently affected by obesity, but also to prevent it in future generations. Treating obesity now, and avoiding the consequences later—the slogan for World Obesity Day—could not be more appropriate.

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Posted:  October 11, 2017