The U.S. Department of Agriculture held its first national conference on adult and childhood obesity prevention here last week, drawing participants from the scientific and medical communities, research fields, universities, and community-health organizations.
The National Obesity Prevention Conference focused on the dearth of obesity-prevention research, highlighted intervention programs in communities and schools as well as the food industry’s efforts to improve public awareness, and discussed the difficulties of building successful prevention measures.
“I think the conference in many ways exceeded our expectations,” said Joseph Jen, the department’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. “Obesity is a very complex issue, and there are not very many conferences that bring together all the elements that we have here.”
Mr. Jen said that a meeting scheduled after the Oct. 25-27 conference, involving conference moderators, speakers, and USDA officials, would be used to determine if the federal agency would sponsor the event annually.
By and large, the conference presenters agreed that not enough research exists for experts to set proper guidelines on obesity prevention and related programs. Many people called for better research standards and practices that would make it easier to compare studies and identify focused interventions.
But other speakers, such as Dr. Tim Byers, a professor of preventative medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver, called for what they see as a more common-sense approach. “I won’t conclude that this is a complex problem,” Dr. Byers told attendees. “In fact, I might conclude it’s a simple problem.”
He likened obesity rates to the rates of car-accident deaths, which are influenced by numerous factors such as vehicle maintenance, speed, road rage, weather, and bad luck. Studies, he said, don’t necessarily prove the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of prevention measures because a variety of factors can contribute to a problem.
To find ways to attack the obesity problem, he argued, agencies and the public need to ask simple questions, such as are people heavier than they used to be in previous generations.
Federal agencies, he said, should play a key role by making fiscal and political investments in programs that take research “out of the ivory tower and into the real world.”
However, some conference attendees and researchers were skeptical of Dr. Byers’ suggestion that obesity is a simple problem. They argued that without good research, obesity-prevention efforts could be misguided. They advocated more review of studies by the federal government, an expansion of the research base, and standards that would help put high-quality programs in schools, where many researchers said the greatest benefits could be seen.
Dr. Byers agreed that schools would be good starting places. He said the intense focus on academic issues in schools is pulling attention away from important health education issues.
“We can’t blame the federal government [for obesity problems], but we can’t minimize the effect of No Child Left Behind [Act] thinking in influencing what schools are for,” he said. “I like to call NCLB ‘no child left without a big behind.’ ”
Need for New Ideas
Although the conference provided a wealth of information about existing obesity interventions and research issues, some attendees were disappointed that the USDA did not provide information on sound approaches to obesity prevention.
“There’s a lot of discussion on what’s been done, and not a lot of discussion on what new things we can be doing,” said Toby A. Ten Eyck, a sociologist from Michigan State University.
Kathryn DeForest, a senior program officer for the Missouri Foundation for Health, a community health organization based in St. Louis, also found some limitations in the conference discussions.
“We were looking for more solutions, more conclusive best practices that we could carry back,” she said.
Still, other attendees said that the conference was a good first step. “I like the fact that they have many different types of presentations—from the socioeconomic to science,” said Denise Moctezuma, a program supervisor for the Expanded Food Nutrition Education program at the University of Maryland College Park. The program, funded by the USDA, helps educate low-income families about healthy eating habits.
While Ms. Moctezuma was attending the obesity conference last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, released a report that found that, on average, adults weigh 24 pounds more now than they did in the 1960s, and that children and adolescents weigh an average of 9 to 15 pounds more.