February 16, 2012

Speaker lays out strategy for halting childhood obesity

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Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., MBA, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, talks about efforts to halt childhood obesity at last week’s Discovery Lecture. (photo by Steve Green)

Speaker lays out strategy for halting childhood obesity

Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster now reminds his young audience that cookies are “a sometimes food.”

The fuzzy blue Muppet’s message is one example of the growing awareness that reversing childhood obesity requires a social movement, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., MBA, said during last week’s Discovery Lecture.

Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shared RWJF’s strategies for halting the rise in childhood obesity by 2015. The foundation has committed $500 million to the effort.

“Clearly there are a multitude of reasons that there has been an increase in childhood obesity,” Lavizzo-Mourey said, citing increasing portion sizes and caloric densities, consumption of more meals away from home, and the fact that 23 million Americans live in “food deserts” – neighborhoods where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. The low physical activity of today’s teens and the marketing of unhealthy foods add to the recipe for bulging waistlines.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said, ‘we’ve got to look at this as something more than a medical problem; we’ve got to look at it as a social problem as well and address the social factors that are leading to childhood obesity,’” Lavizzo-Mourey said.

RWJF is funding efforts at the local, state and federal levels to change public policies that will “reshape the environment so that there’s a movement toward people living healthier and choosing health as their default choice,” she said.

Among the foundation’s priorities:

• Ensure that foods and beverages sold in schools meet the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans

• Increase access to high-quality, affordable foods through new or improved grocery stores and corner markets

• Increase the time, intensity and duration of physical activity during the school day and out-of-school programs

• Increase physical activity by improving the built environment in communities (sidewalks, bike paths, parks and playgrounds)

• Use pricing strategies — both incentives and disincentives — to promote the purchase of healthier foods

• Reduce youths’ exposure to marketing of unhealthy foods through regulation, policy and effective industry self-regulation

In its efforts, the foundation “wants to make sure that we not only reverse the epidemic for all children but that we focus and concentrate on reducing the epidemic where children are most at risk (African-American, Latino, and American Indian communities) so that we reduce health disparities as well,” Lavizzo-Mourey said.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs sponsored Lavizzo-Mourey’s lecture. For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.