This week I’m attending the International Congress on Obesity in Stockholm. In addition to being a presenter, I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-conference meeting for select presenters. Following Sunday’s meeting, I came away with some thoughts I wanted to share with you.
The meeting provided a chance to preview several major papers and discussion themes that will be highlighted during the ICO. Since the last ICO meeting (4 years ago) there has been a continued unabated upward trend in obesity. The only notable exceptions being in some European countries where evidence of a slowdown is appearing. The most rapid increases are being reported in emerging markets.
Boyd Swinburn from Australia highlighted the need to simultaneously address socio-cultural and behavioral factors while tackling environmental and policy issues. Several examples of “obesogenic” socio-cultural factors were provided based on research in diverse populations in the Asia-Pacific region. They included how people value food, body size and image as well as varied attitudes to physical activity.
Later papers indicated how important it was to address these issues in designing community based interventions. However, despite efforts to draw upon local values and global knowledge about what works, most of the studies attempting to reduce obesity in kids that were based on school programs showed limited to no impact. This is not surprising and simply emphasizes the importance of Boyd’s call to address environmental factors alongside school improvements.
In my presentation I outlined several specific ways in which food companies were starting to address such factors. These include lowering the energy density and increasing the nutrient quality of products; reducing portion sizes; restricting marketing of certain products to kids; promoting calorie transparency and supporting efforts to increase physical activity. As would be anticipated, there was a lively and healthy debate about whether industry was going far enough and fast enough. And several leading academics raised concerns about processed foods and snacks displacing fresh and minimally processed foods in emerging markets.
In response to these critiques I identified several areas of work where combining private and public initiatives could accelerate learning and action in relation to obesity control. These included work to shift from a volume/food quantity culture to one based on an appreciation of food quality, and a willingness to pay for this; research and action to address the reality that many of the most desired foods are relatively more expensive than those contributing to energy dense products ; investment by the public and private sectors in twenty first century nutrition science especially in developing countries; and the development of better metrics to track and optimally manage calorie flows.
A prerequisite to making progress on these areas was the need to build a means of talking and working together in ways in which neither academics nor corporate players feel they need to compromise their values and beliefs.
I believe that the remaining areas of disagreement should not retard working together on issues of mutual benefit. What are some of the opportunities and challenges you see? I look forward to bloggers’ view on this critical point.