In my quest to bring the best possible health advice to the Revolution Health community I am actively pursuing interviews with credible sources. At the top of the list is America’s #1 doctor, the Surgeon General. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona, M.D., who served as Surgeon General from August 2002 to August 2006. He addressed a range of health issues facing Americans today. I am posting the interview in segments; the following post is part of that series.
Dr. Carmona: Obesity is absolutely at the core of the chronic disease crisis. When we look at the relationship of obesity to other diseases that plague society today (such as asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes) obesity increases the incidence of each of them, and can even accelerate some of them. Losing weight is not about trying to emulate models in fashion magazines, it’s about being healthy.
If we could only address one major public health issue as a nation, I would focus on the obesity crisis. Weight loss could have the greatest impact in decreasing the chronic disease burden in America.
Dr. Val: So what can we do about obesity?
Dr. Carmona: That question is simple on the surface but incredibly complex when you begin to analyze it carefully. First of all we have to identify the variables that contribute to this problem, because it’s a multi-factorial issue. The socio-economic determinants of heath are inextricable from the health status of individuals and communities. That means that if you’re poor and have less education, you’re going to experience health disparities. You can’t afford to buy healthy food, you don’t live in a neighborhood where you can walk at night and get exercise, and so on. So understanding all the determinants of health to address obesity is important.
Let me describe just one significant variable contributing to the obesity epidemic: the sedentary lifestyles of children. Thirty years ago it was commonly believed that physical education in school was not important, because kids played during all the hours that they are out of school. Parents reasoned: ‘Why should I pay a teacher to have my kids play ball at recess? I’d rather have her teach them math and science.’ So there was a sweeping trend to discontinue physical education at school. Now, however, kids spend too much time on playstations rather than on play grounds – or they watch over 4 hours of TV a day. They’re sedentary at school and at home.
Other variables that influence obesity rates in kids include the accessibility to fast food, the increased rate of single parenthood, and the change in cultural traditions around meal time. For wealthier families, easy access to large volumes of food of every possible kind can create an environment where people overeat.
The solution to the obesity crisis is not “one-size fits all.” The approach to obesity must be tailored to the cultural and socio-economic sensitivities of the sub-population that you’re trying to reach.
Ultimately we need to change behavior – walk a little more, eat a little less, buy some healthy foods. But targeted interventions must be culturally sensitive and socio-economically relevant. For example, the government is funding programs to make healthy foods more accessible to underserved areas, and physical activity programs are being reinstated in schools. But the effects of these programs are not going to be seen for many years because it takes time for the culture to catch up. Also, the approach must be comprehensive. If we were able to get all of our children enrolled in a daily game of baseball (to increase their physical activity), that would not solve the problem of fast food and video games.
There needs to be a community approach, so that no matter where the child turns they’re getting positive reinforcement of healthy behaviors. That’s part of what I’m doing with the national non-profit health organization that I’m president of now – Canyon Ranch Institute.
The Surgeon General series: see what else Dr. Carmona has to say about…