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Does Normalizing Obesity Do More Harm Than Good?

It is estimated that 44% of Americans will be obese by the year 2030. The AMA warns that increasing obesity rates will lead “to millions of additional cases of type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease, as well as arthritis and hypertension. Billions of dollars will be wasted through lost economic productivity and skyrocketing medical costs.”

And yet, a funny thing is happening in consumer land – efforts to normalize obesity are gaining momentum via social media platforms. Take the “beauty comes in all sizes” ad for example. This was shared with me by an old grade school friend on Facebook. And while I can appreciate the sentiment that women of various genetic predispositions are beautiful, I stopped short at the idea that obesity itself was attractive. There is a growing movement among obese men and women to promote acceptance of their size, and if they win this argument they could substantially undermine efforts to help Americans become healthy and avoid disease. I know this sounds harsh, but to me, promoting beauty of all sizes – when that includes obesity- is tantamount to promoting a “smoking is cool” campaign.

Smoking rates in the United States have dropped from 42.4% in 1965 to 19% in 2010. Although one-in-five people still smoke, we have successfully reduced the smoking burden by more than half. The reasons for this reduction are complex, but they include public awareness campaigns regarding the harmfulness of cigarette smoking, increasing taxes on cigarettes, and public policy regarding where and when people can smoke in public.

The same exact approach can’t work for obesity because while people can simply quit smoking, we can’t quit eating. And what we eat is less important than how much we eat. I personally do not favor “fat taxes” on specific food items because almost any food could cause weight gain if consumed in large enough quantities. I also don’t favor singling out obese people for portion reduction at restaurants (this has actually been proposed), or other policies that are similar to what we’ve done with smoking in public spaces. Promoting prejudice against the obese is not constructive.

So that leaves us with public perception/education and peer pressure as our primary national strategy for reducing obesity rates.  (Of course smaller initiatives can help: employers can incentivize weight loss and wellness, policy makers can encourage new housing developments that promote active lifestyles, and local groups and non-profits can promote fitness initiatives and healthy eating behaviors.)

My concern is that if too many people decide that normalizing obesity is better than fighting it, America will lose this battle. Obesity-related disease is already costing us about twice as much as smoking-related illnesses. And both smoking and obesity are nearly 100% avoidable.

Obesity is not beautiful, and we must redouble our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the public on this subject without resorting to the other extreme (idolizing anorexia). Good health lies somewhere in the middle – and keeping our middles within a reasonable range is the most important health goal we have.

Kim Jong Il’s Health At The End Of His Life And Other Hot Topics In Medical News

kim jong il, north korea, health, reporting on healthKim Jong Il: Of course we’re going to highlight the lowlights of the North Korean leader’s health: CNN has the scoop on the dictator’s cause of death and previous illnesses. Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn rounds up previous analyses of Kim Jong Il’s psychological profile.

Breast Cancer: Companies are trying to build a better mammogram as they compete for a bigger slice of the $6 billion-and-growing medical imaging market, Sierra Jiminez reports for Fortune. Nearly 300,000 American women have been diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Health Reform: The U.S. Supreme Court will devote an unprecedented week of oral argument over health reform when Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Reporting on Health - The Reporting on Health Daily Briefing*

The Effects Of Obesity Go Beyond One’s Health

Obesity impacts income, especially among women, according to a report from The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services’ Department of Health Policy.

In 2004, wages among the obese were $8,666 less for females and $4,772 lower for males. In 2008, wages were $5,826 less for obese females, a 14.6% penalty over normal weight females, the researchers concluded after examining years 2004 and 2008 in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

The research shows that there are significant differences in wages dependent upon race that couldn’t be accounted for by measuring pre-recession (2004) and recession (2008) measures. In 2004, Hispanic women who were obese earned $6,618 less than those who were normal weight. In 2008, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Book Review: The First Step To Improve Health Care Is A Close Examination Of How It’s Delivered

My friend and former Chair of the CFAH Board of Trustees, Doug Kamerow, has written a book that I think you will like.

Besides being a mensch and witty as heck, Doug is a family doctor and a preventive medicine specialist.  In his new book, Dissecting American Health Care: Commentaries on Health Policy and Politics, these four characteristics constitute the lens through which he comments on scores of events, controversies and changes in public health and health policy that have taken place over the past four years. For example, Doug writes about last year’s debate over the H1N1 vaccine, the papal position on condoms and HIV, how prevention fared in the health care reform act (ACA) and his attempt to Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

CDC Works To Eradicate Polio Around The World By The End Of 2012

Men painting billboard for polio vaccination campaign

Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease that is completely preventable. Since 1988, members of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), including CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary, and UNICEF, have teamed up to eradicate polio world-wide through large scale vaccination efforts. Global polio cases are down more than 99% since GPEI began. We were able to completely eradicate the disease in the Americas by 1994 and protect our children. By 2006, polio was endemic in only four countries: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Public Health Matters Blog*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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