The Latest Science on Obesity — and Why Early Childhood Intervention Is Critical

By now most of you have probably either read or heard about Tara Parker-Pope’s cover story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine, “The Fat Trap,” which reviews the most recent obesity science to explain why maintaining weight loss can be close to impossible for the vast majority of dieters.  In a nutshell:

For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.

. . . . “After you’ve lost weight, your brain has a greater emotional response to food,” Rosenbaum [Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia University] says. “You want it more, but the areas of the brain involved in restraint are less active.” Combine that with a body that is now burning fewer calories than expected, he says, “and you’ve created the perfect storm for weight regain.” How long this state lasts isn’t known, but preliminary research at Columbia suggests that for as many as six years after weight loss, the body continues to defend the old, higher weight by burning off far fewer calories than would be expected. The problem could persist indefinitely. . . .  This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off; it just means it’s really, really difficult.

I’ve seen various responses to this article on Facebook and elsewhere.  For those who’ve struggled with their weight all their lives, reading about this research is more than a little vindicating.  But for anyone who needs to lose weight, the findings are also quite daunting:  those profiled in the piece who have maintained significant weight loss are living lives of constant vigilance, weighing themselves daily, writing down every scrap of food they eat, exercising long and hard, and even travelling with their own scales.  So it’s hardly surprising that these successful maintainers are in the tiny minority of the millions of people who lose weight every year, only to regain it again and again.

But from my perspective, the single most important two sentences in the article were these:

Given how hard it is to lose weight, it’s clear, from a public-health standpoint, that resources would best be focused on preventing weight gain. The research underscores the urgency of national efforts to get children to exercise and eat healthful foods.

As these scientific findings gain more widespread attention and acceptance, let’s hope we see a collective renewal and bolstering of our efforts to prevent childhood obesity before it even begins.  What would that entail?

  • Telling Big Food lobbyists that for once we’re going to put the needs of children ahead of their demands.   That means no more watering down of improved school food standards to preserve industry profits (remember pizza = vegetable?) and putting real muscle behind legislative efforts to rein in the marketing of junk food to children (instead of floating weak, voluntary guidelines, and watching as even those standards are thwarted by industry).
  • Conducting public health campaigns to counteract, as much as possible, the billions of dollars spent by Big Food on advertising. (You might recall my suggestion, in my winning essay from the Slate magazine anti-obesity contest, that we “inoculate” kids against Big Food’s messages as we have with tobacco marketing.)

I believe this vision, as unrealistic as it currently seems, will one day be a reality.  Why?  Because two of our most important national concerns – the economy and national security — are already severely impacted by obesity, as reflected in sky-rocketing health care costs, loss of economic productivity and lack of military readiness.

The status quo is simply not sustainable.  But how long will it take before the tide truly shifts?

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  1. says

    I totally agree that the article and your post. The research should be a clarion call for prevention, which means a focus on childhood and family intervention. I also agree with your vision and practical policy steps. Under education children, I have to shoehorn in my call for family dinner.

    Family dinner is a critical way to both offer healthy foods and to instill values about moderation and enjoying food mindfully. Research shows that in families that eat together regularly, parents and children both eat better (more fruits and vegetables, more nutritious food) and can better maintain healthy weights, in addition other social benefits of time around the table.

    Family dinner is just one part of the puzzle. By itself, it cannot change the policy environment (although motivated parents might). But it is something that every family can act on in order to inspire and educate their own children.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Here, here! How could I leave out family dinner? Thank you, Grace, for the reminder and for all you do to promote families eating together.

  2. says

    I agree with you that prevention is so important. But, not surprisingly, I think that efforts need to start much earlier than school. Parents need to consider longterm habits from the get-go, stop being conned by ads and nutrition/health claims, and think beyond what their kids eat to when, why, where, and how much as well.



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