Why Americans 'Tune Out' Obesity Talk

Despite more information and resources, we're still getting fatter. Why?

Sept. 28, 2007 — -- Today in America, the obesity conversation is very loud.

Every day, Americans are inundated with the latest statistics, weight-loss products and information about how healthy -- or unhealthy -- they are.

We know that in the United States too many adults (about 66 percent) and children and adolescents (about 33 percent) are overweight or obese. Most of us would like to be able to change our diets and increase our physical activity level and lose weight -- but achieving this isn't easy.

Even more alarming, we learned earlier this month that American weight loss efforts are stalling as obesity continues to rise. American efforts to lose weight have dropped 14 percentage points in the last four years, according to new research from the America On the Move Foundation (AOMF).

The tools and resources to fight the obesity epidemic are all around us, in many forms, and yet, Americans aren't taking advantage of them. They are tuning out the noise.

Why, when the awareness of the hazards of obesity is at an all-time high, are fewer people trying to lose weight? I believe it is because people have found they cannot sustain the big lifestyle changes that experts tell them they need for weight loss. But maybe people who have given up on weight loss can succeed in preventing excessive weight gain.

Prevention is never as "sexy" as solving an existing problem, but when it comes to obesity, the things necessary for prevention might be what people can reasonably, actually accomplish. For this reason, we must move prevention of excessive weight gain higher on the national agenda.

A Sustainability Problem

There is no shortage of information about how to lose weight. When people choose a popular diet or a commercial weight loss program, they often are asked to make big changes in diet and physical activity patterns. Most people actually achieve some success with these plans in the short term. The problem is sustaining it permanently. Most Americans find that life gets in the way and it is difficult to keep doing the things recommended by their diet plan.

This is the American approach to dieting: lose weight and gain it back. Very few people who lose significant amounts of weight actually keep it off. Those who do have learned how to sustain big lifestyle changes, even in environments that encourage overeating and discourage physical activity. It would be great if we could change our environment to one that is less supportive of obesity and more supportive of healthy weight -- and over time, we might be able to do this.

Right now, however, we must accept that very few people can make and sustain the large lifestyle changes needed to achieve significant weight loss. The next new diet is not the answer: Instead we must rethink our approach to weight management.

Keeping It Simple

Simple lifestyle changes are a proven approach to preventing excessive weight gain. The average American gains one to two pounds each year; it is this gradual weight gain that is fueling increasing obesity rates. AOMF studies prove that making two small changes each day can reap big rewards over time. Just two simple steps -- adding 2,000 steps a day (about a mile) and cutting 100 calories (about a pat of butter) -- can keep off those few extra annual pounds.

Helping people make these small lifestyle changes is the most likely way to reverse the obesity epidemic. Over time, this will first stabilize and then lower the number of overweight and obese Americans.

Getting started is as simple as purchasing a pedometer and tracking the number of steps you take each day. Once a baseline is determined, adding 2,000 steps over the course of one day is easy -- parking at the edge of the parking lot, walking once around the grocery store before beginning to shop, or even walking through the house while talking on the telephone all are quick, simple ways to add steps to your day.

We have also found that once people start making these small lifestyle changes, they find it easier to continue to make more small changes. The approach is viral and we have even found that these people begin to influence positively people around them (their social network).

This week, AOMF, a national nonprofit group that is helping millions of Americans embrace healthy eating and active living habits, partnered with the YMCA of the USA for America On the Move Week with the YMCA. Through Sept. 27, more than 1,500 YMCAs across the country hosted activities that inspired individuals and families to take small steps to get active.

Visit www.americaonthemove.org to find a participating YMCA near you. Take your first small step toward a healthier life.

James O. Hill, Ph.D., is the co-founder of America On the Move Foundation and professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.