Obesity is increasingly becoming a global health issue and a new challenge for everyone throughout our food system. In fact, the situation is so dire that the World Health Organization has declared obesity one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century. Obesity drastically increases the risk of developing noncommunicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Moreover, the more an individual weighs, the more likely he or she is to develop more than one of these diseases.

So what is the most effective strategy to curb the rising global obesity epidemic? Many food scientists and food manufacturers believe the solution is to formulate new products aimed at health and wellness. Fitness professionals have developed grueling, complex exercise routines designed to burn optimal calories. Social scientists and educators continue to explore avenues to encourage food choice and behavior changes, thereby improving consumers’ health status.

While these approaches may be admirable, each one overlooks other crucial contributing factors to obesity and related diseases. During IFT’s 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo in Las Vegas, Beacon Lecturers Dr. Jose Saavedra and Dr. Mehmood Khan discussed topics and strategies that should be on the minds of those who work in the food industry, the health care industry, and consumer education.

Everything consumers eat has a direct effect on their immunological response and metabolism, Dr. Saavedra said. He asserted that a healthy immune system is just as important as lifestyle choices and dietary intake in the fight against obesity-related noncommunicable diseases. Diabetes, allergies, celiac disease, and other intestinal disorders are but a few of the manifestations of a poor diet and ill-prepared immune system. Apparently, a nutritious diet along with healthy intestinal microbes is imperative for a healthy life.

Although dietary changes can be introduced at any stage in life, Dr. Saavedra emphasized establishing a preference for healthy foods (i.e., vegetables, fruits, and whole grains) should begin early—before children reach 2 years of age. Preferences for salty, sugary, and fatty foods that begin early in life tend to persist throughout one’s lifespan, so if healthy dietary choices and a strong immune system are not established early, consumers are less likely to develop them later.

In this regard, less-developed countries and cultures with strong ethnic food traditions may have an advantage over Westerners. Dr. Kahn asserted that American physicians, scientists, and policy makers should travel to other countries to learn and understand other cultures and the successes and failures associated with their lifestyle, dietary, and policy choices. Instead of relying on the high sodium, sugar, and fat content of many staples in the American diet, societies with strong cultural practices eat traditional ethnic cuisine that incorporates fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and lean sources of protein. Such societies have lower prevalence of the obesity-related chronic diseases that plague Westerners. Americans may be living longer than other populations, but not without the assistance of pills, potions, and significant medical intervention. For example, natives of Okinawa, Japan, adhere to traditional cultural practices. The result: The average Okinawan consumes a predominantly plant-based diet, eating at least seven servings of vegetables a day. In fact, vegetables, fruits, and grains constitute more than 70% of the Okinawan diet. The consumption of lean sources of protein (mostly fish) occurs no more than three times a week, accounting for 3% of the diet. And their lifestyle and living arrangements seamlessly foster daily physical activity. As a result, Okinawans have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world: Obesity and cardiovascular disease are rare, incidence of breast and prostate cancers is miniscule, and diabetes is virtually nonexistent. It is clear that Westernized countries could learn a lot from this Japanese society.

Obviously, a predominantly plant-based diet could benefit many consumers, but as Dr. Khan pointed out, the production of vegetables and fruits would have to increase exponentially to give everyone the opportunity to eat 4 servings or more a day. (I have emphasized this point in past Food, Medicine, & Health columns.) The objective here is not to point fingers at what doesn’t or won’t work but to identify additional strategies and challenges that affect all stakeholders—including consumers. We must work toward a future that integrates food, nutrition, medicine, and public health and policy that affect us from infancy through the mature years of life.


Roger Clemens, Dr.P.H.,
IFT President, 2011–2012
Chief Scientific Officer, Horn Company, La Mirada, Calif.
[email protected]