Science Characterizes the Current State of America as “Obecity, USA”
New Advocacy Campaign Aims to Raise Awareness of Urgent Public Health Crisis, Eradicate the Obesity Epidemic by 2040
May 6, 2021
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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana – Welcome to “Obecity, USA”: the fastest-growing place in the world. Where fast-food restaurants outnumber grocery stores six to one, and a third of all TV ads promote junk food. Where tacos cost less than apples and school cafeteria pizza counts as a vegetable. Where portion sizes are four times larger than they were in the 1950s—a decade that also boasts the last generation of Americans that grew up free from an obesity epidemic.
Today, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population has obesity: the highest rate on record. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 300,000 Americans die of obesity-related causes every year, from cardiovascular disease to Type 2 diabetes to 13 different types of cancer. This is the dangerously unhealthy, unsustainable state of America. Where 41.2 million people can’t regularly afford nutritious food, and we as a nation can no longer afford the enormous physical, mental, emotional, and economic toll that obesity takes.
“If the reality check seems harsh, that’s intentional,” said John Kirwan, PhD and Executive Director of Pennington Biomedical, a world-leading obesity and diabetes research center supported by an associated foundation. Pennington Biomedical architected the “Obesity, USA” awareness and advocacy campaign to reframe the obesity narrative and effectively curb the obesity epidemic by 2040.
“It’s important to focus on the gravity of the obesity epidemic and what’s at stake if we do nothing,” Dr. Kirwan said. “Obesity is one of the most prevalent and deadly diseases. We have an opportunity—an obligation, really—to not only raise awareness but to shift public perception of obesity as a disease. It’s time to dispel the many myths that have long persisted, and arm individuals and communities with evidence-based research and the resources necessary to lead healthy lives.”
Relative to other diseases, obesity is in its infancy in terms of medical and scientific community attention and research. Obesity was initially recognized as a chronic disease in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2013 that it was officially designated as such by the American Medical Association. Compounding the problem, obesity is often viewed as a choice and/or an individual character flaw. But science confirms that obesity is not simply a mentality. It is not an elected lifestyle. It’s not just about lack of self-control. In fact, there’s much more to obesity than simply what people are eating or when they’re pushing away from the table.
Through emotion-packed PSAs, radio, and out-of-home advertisements, the “Obecity, USA” awareness campaign explores the dangerous cycle of obesity—perpetuated by both inherited and environmental factors that are often out of an individual’s control.
We’re first introduced to “Obecity, USA” [location: everywhere] through one of its young residents, Charlie, a.k.a. “Invisiboy,” who’s largely overlooked by his classmates but relentlessly and directly targeted by advertisers that prioritize fast, quick, and easy.
“Charlie’s story reinforces that obesity is incredibly complicated and about more than willpower. It’s in our DNA and all around us, and myriad systemic issues contribute to its pervasiveness,” said Rebecca Schutte, President/Chief Executive Officer for the Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation.
The campaign spot was developed to strike a chord in the American consciousness, but all of the content is backed by scientific research. “One thing I’ve learned is that obesity is not about fitting in your favorite jeans. It’s not about body size. It’s about excess abnormal body fat that is impairing health - driving risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. We should not minimize this complex chronic disease by equating it with cosmetics,” said Donna Ryan, MD and Professor Emerita at Pennington Biomedical.
In another manifestation of the campaign, we meet Ezra, a middle-school-aged Black girl whose weight is out of control— but as we come to learn, it was never really in her control. She’s blamed and shamed for her size. But as too few can see, healthy food options and safe spaces to exercise aren’t easily accessible. Like with Charlie, it’s not just what she’s eating, it’s what she’s being fed by society.
Ezra’s story helps to illustrate another complication of obesity — its disproportionate impact on certain populations, heightened by existing health disparities. Food access and affordability are major contributors to the obesity trend, as are societal shifts toward increasingly inactive lifestyles. Reports show that one in three people don’t exercise enough, and on average, 40 percent of our waking time is spent in sedentary activities. All too often, resources to combat obesity are out of reach for those who could benefit from them most.
Although fictional characters, both Ezra and Charlie call attention to the very real stigmas surrounding obesity—all stemming from disproven assumptions that obesity is the result of a lack of self-discipline or personal responsibility. As Pennington Biomedical reminds us, it’s time to “medicalize, not stigmatize” obesity.
“Shame and stigma only feed into the problem and perpetuate misconceptions. We can’t make meaningful progress on the disease until we recognize its pervasiveness and put an end to the judgment, prioritizing medical help over hurtful personal commentary,” said Dr. Kirwan. “What we need is honest conversation — with adults who have obesity; with parents of children who have obesity; and with every single one of us with a friend, family member, colleague, or loved one who struggles with obesity. As with other public health issues like substance abuse, addiction, and mental health, change starts with a shift in perspective.”
Everyone has a role to play in the fight against obesity. And everyone has a stake in it, as the costs associated with this disease affect all of us regardless of age, race, health status, or geographic location. For starters, know your body, know your weight, and know what constitutes a healthy BMI for you. Pennington Biomedical researchers emphasize that fat is not all bad; the human body depends on fat for energy, temperature regulation, hormone production, and brain, organ, and cell health. Second, be mindful of how you’re framing obesity conversations. People affected by obesity can suffer from depression or a lack of self-confidence as a result of fat-shaming, weight stigma, or discrimination. Lastly, if you’re struggling with obesity, talk to your provider so you can understand the treatment options available to you. Lifestyle interventions, medication, surgery, and/or collaborative care can be highly effective, though prevention is most beneficial.
America has reached a tipping point. Let’s #GetFedUp and work together to reverse the course of this crisis. Go to VisitObecity.org to learn more about the “Obecity, USA” campaign and Pennington Biomedical’s goal of eradicating the obesity epidemic by 2040.
About Pennington Biomedical:
Pennington Biomedical Research Center is a world leader in the fight against obesity and related chronic diseases. Since its founding in 1988, Pennington Biomedical has been conducting basic, clinical, and population research on obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia. The work of the Center is supported and promoted by Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.