Stand up as you read this – seriously. After five days of conference sessions and presentations at Obesity 2011: The 29th Annual Scientific Meeting of The Obesity Society in Orlando, Florida, I can say that the take-home message is clear: there is not a singular cause for the country’s obesity epidemic nor will there be a single solution. There are many contributing factors which will require many different treatment methods.
Statistics are sobering: more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese, causing at least 112,000 deaths in the U.S. annually, and medical-related expenses attributable to obesity will top $344 billion by 2018.
This year’s conference topics ranged from children’s breakfast choices to controversial relationships between the food industry and public health organizations. Perhaps the most surprising presentation covered the negative impact of sedentary behavior on all individuals – including those with regular exercise habits; however, the most concerning presentations detailed the obesity crisis and effects on children, with currently one in three U.S. children overweight or obese.
Jason Block, MD, presented his research findings regarding the ability of adolescents to estimate their caloric intake at fast food restaurants. His observations conclude that today’s average adolescent is highly unaware of their caloric intake. Eighty percent of adolescents significantly underestimate their caloric consumption at fast food restaurants by an average of 61-88 percent.
Renowned obesity expert, Barry Popkin, Ph.D., detailed the history of snacking and its role in increased youth obesity. Dr. Popkin reported that the percentage of daily calories attributed to snacking was up eight percent from 1977 to 2008. He detailed how in the early 1970s children over the age of five rarely snacked, while today the average child consumes more than two snacks per day. He explained that while the frequency of snack consumption and portion sizes have increased, the time between snacks and meals has decreased.
Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D, described how the lack of self-regulation on behalf of the food industry has resulted in ubiquitous advertising of children’s cereals containing 85 percent more sugar, 60 percent more sodium, and 65 percent less fiber than adult cereals (on average). Although it doesn’t seem that food alone is causing obesity – residence location seems to be another determining factor. Nicolas Oreskovic, MD, presented findings that non-automotive transportation (e.g. walking, biking, skateboarding, etc.) to school has decreased from 44 percent in 1968, to only 13 percent in 2008. He detailed the effects of suburban sprawl and how master-planned communities generally have not fostered easy self-transportation.
At the end of the conference, and with rather ironic timing, Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., discussed the metabolic consequences of sitting. His data showed the average adult sits for nine hours per day – more than they sleep! Dr. Hamilton stressed that being physically fit or decreasing calories does not prevent against the acute metabolic effects of too much sitting. Peter Katzmarzyk, Ph.D., added that policy initiatives should be aimed at being less sedentary in everyday life and not only focused on increasing exercise. He presented a surprising dose-response association between sitting time and chronic disease risk and mortality, independent of physical activity.
I was able to attend this year’s conference as a WMDPG stipend winner, and am grateful for the opportunity to represent the organization. Our group had a great time the entire week and even had a chance to network during the Kellogg’s™-sponsored reception. This conference was a fantastic way to network with academic researchers and clinicians and to hear the latest research on obesity. I hope to see you at next year’s conference, and that if you’re still reading this, you’re not sitting down.