February 20, 2009

Combating obesity calls for social movement: lecturer

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Shiriki Kumanyika, Ph.D., M.P.H., speaks at last week’s Discovery Lecture. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Combating obesity calls for social movement: lecturer

Widening waistlines are not just an American problem — even though “we're still in the lead,” Shiriki Kumanyika, Ph.D., M.P.H., said at last week's Discovery Lecture.
The obesity epidemic is a global issue that will require global solutions, she said.

Kumanyika, professor of Epidemiology and associate dean for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, reviewed data showing that body mass index (BMI) values have shifted to higher values worldwide. In the United States, men and women are on average 25 pounds heavier than they were in the 1970s.

“We've moved up 25 pounds, but we didn't get a lot taller,” Kumanyika quipped.

She showed projections for continuing weight gain “if we don't figure this out.” By the mid-21st century, more than 50 percent of men and more than 75 percent of women in the United States are projected to be obese, defined as a BMI greater than or equal to 30.

At its core, the problem is food intake, Kumanyika said.

“We're going to have to get the food intake down, because there aren't enough hours in the day to work it off,” she said.

It will take broadly based social change to combat the obesity epidemic, she said.

“We have solved these kinds of social problems before,” she added. She reviewed common elements of past successful campaigns for change — in areas like seatbelt safety, waste recycling, tobacco use and breastfeeding. All of the successes included core elements such as a plan, government involvement, policy changes, community coalitions, and scientific research to describe the risks.

In the case of the obesity epidemic, Kumanyika said, “we have a plan.” The U.S. Surgeon General and the Institute of Medicine both have issued calls for a social movement to combat obesity.

“Now we need to own and catch on to the social movement,” she said, noting that grass-roots efforts are happening across America. Kumanyika exhorted members of the audience to take action in their own communities.

Kumanyika has been studying obesity since the early 1980s. A member of the Institute of Medicine, she has been active in international panels and task forces on global nutrition and obesity issues.

Her current studies involve developing and evaluating interventions to prevent or treat obesity and promote healthy eating and physical activity in African-Americans and Latinos, in clinical and community-based settings. African-American and Latino women have a higher than average burden of obesity, Kumanyika said, but it's not clear whether that disparity is part of the global obesity epidemic or has a different cause. Her studies and others are addressing these issues.

The Institute for Medicine and Public Health at Vanderbilt sponsored her lecture.

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.