Educating med students about nutrition and physical activity could curb obesity

Obesity not only increases Americans’ risk of chronic disease and premature death but also contributes to the nation’s fiscal crisis, a report suggests.

By — Posted June 20, 2012

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To help stem the tide of the nation’s escalating obesity epidemic, a nonprofit think tank is calling for improved training in nutrition and physical activity for health professionals.

Expanding physician knowledge in those areas not only would help patients maintain a healthy weight and reduce chronic disease but also lower health care costs, said a report issued June 5 by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.

“Obesity is the most urgent public health problem in America today,” the report said. “[It’s] not just a health crisis, but a major contributor to our fiscal crisis.”

The U.S. spends about $2.6 trillion a year on health care. By 2020, that figure is expected to grow to $4.6 trillion and consume about 20% of the gross domestic product, the study said. Driving the increase, in part, are medical costs associated with obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, said the four-member committee of former government officials that wrote the report.

One in three adults is obese, as are 17% of children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The prevalence of obesity in that young age group has nearly tripled from 1980, when about 6% of youths were obese, the CDC said. The estimated annual cost of obesity-related illnesses is $190.2 billion, according to the Institute of Medicine.

“Doctors, nurses and [other] health care professionals are uniquely positioned to inform and motivate Americans on the importance of good nutrition and physical activity,” said Donna E. Shalala, PhD, president of the University of Miami and former Secretary of the Dept. of Health and Human Services. She helped write the report. “We recommend that all forms of medical education incorporate nutrition and physical activity training as part of the curriculum.”

The American Medical Association supports educating medical students and practicing physicians about obesity prevention. For example, the AMA has developed continuing medical education activities to help doctors promote healthy eating and physical activity among adult patients (link).

But the responsibility of curbing obesity extends beyond health professionals to lawmakers, educators, public and private businesses, and families, said the Bipartisan Policy Center report (link).

Making a healthier nation

The committee developed recommendations for each of those sectors after examining the effectiveness of health initiatives that have been implemented across the country. Such initiatives include healthier menus in Army dining halls, improved school lunch programs and community-based preventive care services.

The report aims to build on what the committee considers are the most promising of those efforts. The committee’s recommendations include:

  • Extending federal guidelines for diet and physical activity to all children younger than 6.
  • Enhancing support and promotion of breast-feeding for a baby’s first six months.
  • Requiring food retailers to adopt in-store marketing and product placement strategies that promote the purchase of healthy foods.
  • Identifying and addressing barriers to making fruits and vegetables more affordable.

“We strongly believe that every sector has a role to play. Change will require leadership from all quarters,” said Michael Leavitt, a committee member and a former governor of Utah and HHS secretary.

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