Obesity: Overview of an epidemic

Academic Article


  • In pursuing the good life people have created an environment and a society that unintentionally promote weight gain and obesity, given people's genetic and biological make-up. The consequences of the obesity epidemic are severe, affecting the health, quality of life, and economics of the nation. Dealing with the epidemic of obesity is likely to be one of the greatest challenges society has faced. To reverse the obesity epidemic, specific strategies need to be developed that recognize the complexity of the issue. Obesity involves biology, behavior, and the environment. The ways society currently promotes obesity must be re-examined, and what things can be changed must be determined. The ways communities are built need to be re-examined, along with the ways foods are produced and marketed and the ways sedentary behavior is promoted inadvertently. There is a growing realization that it is time to get serious about public health efforts to reverse the obesity epidemic. Although obesity prevalence rates have been rising since the 1980s it is only within the past 5 years that the issue has risen to a high priority for the public health community and policy makers. Thus, it is not surprising that no large-scale national initiatives exist to deal with the problem. The need to develop such initiatives is apparent, but there is no clear strategy for doing so. There is some reason to be optimistic about dealing with obesity. Many previous threats to public health have been addressed successfully. It was probably inconceivable in the 1950s to think that major public health initiatives could have such a dramatic effect on reducing the prevalence of smoking in the United States. Yet, this serious problem was addressed by a combination of strategies involving public health, economics, political advocacy, behavior change, and environmental change. Similarly, Americans have been persuaded to use seat belts and recycle, addressing two other challenges to public health. But, there is also reason to be pessimistic. The challenge with obesity may be greater than past challenges. In the other examples cited, clear goals existed: to stop smoking, increase the use seatbelts, and increase recycling. The difficulty of achieving these goals should not be minimized, but they were clear and simple goals. With obesity, there is no clear agreement about goals. There is no agreement among experts as to which strategies should be implemented on a widespread basis to achieve the behavioral changes in the population needed to reverse the high prevalence rates of obesity. Success models are needed that will help people understand what to do to address obesity. But, while success models are needed, there is a great deal of urgency in responding to the obesity epidemic. Once people get serious about addressing obesity, it will likely take decades to reverse obesity rates to levels seen 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the prevalence of overweight and obesity increases yearly, and the opportunity to prevent obesity in most people is being lost rapidly.
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    Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Hill JO; Catenacci V; Wyatt HR
  • Start Page

  • 1
  • End Page

  • 23
  • Volume

  • 28
  • Issue

  • 1