According to a report by Reuters today, in the last year obesity rates in a dozen states have pushed past 30 percent with Mississippi leading the pack at 34.4 percent. Colorado has the “healthiest” record with just below 20 percent obesity – a number that in 1995 would have made it the fattest state.
According to “F as in Fat,” an annual report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, no states saw declines in obesity rates despite a multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry, lots of government programs and a new healthy eating graphic. Two-thirds of American adults and almost 30 percent of American children are now overweight or obese.
What’s going on? Is it just a case of eating too much and not exercising enough?
Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers recently found that modest changes in a variety of diet and lifestyle choices were strongly linked with long-term weight gain. In a study appearing in the June 23, 2011, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine the researchers fingered specific foods and beverages, physical activity, TV-watching, and sleep duration for long-term weight gain with changes in diet having the strongest effects.
“An average adult gains about one pound per year. Because the weight gain is so gradual and occurs over many years, it has been difficult for scientists and for individuals themselves to understand the specific factors that may be responsible,” said lead author Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH and Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and Harvard Medical School.
Evaluating data from over 120,000 people over 12 to 20 years, the researchers found that participants gained an average of 3.35 pounds during each four-year period, which corresponded to a weight gain of 16.8 pounds over the 20-year period.
Specific foods associated with the greatest weight gain over the 20-year period included potato chips, each daily serving of which correlated with an added 1.69 pounds of weight over a 4 year period. Other foods associated with weight gain over 4 years included other potatoes (1.28 pounds), sugar-sweetened beverages (1.00 pound), unprocessed meats (0.95 pound), and processed meats (0.93 pound).
Increasing other foods was associated with less weight gain over the four years, including vegetables (−0.22 pound), whole grains (−0.37 pound), fruits (−0.49 pound), nuts (−0.57 pound) and yogurt (−0.82 pound).
Rather than counting calories, fat or sugar, the researchers found that focusing on overall dietary choices – more healthful foods – was most important.
The most useful dietary metrics for preventing long-term weight gain seem to be:
- Improving carbohydrate quality by eating less liquid sugars (e.g. soda) and other sweets, as well as fewer starches (e.g. potatoes) and refined grains (e.g. white bread, white rice, breakfast cereals low in fiber, other refined carbohydrates).
- Eating more whole (minimally processed) foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, yogurt) and fewer highly processed foods (e.g. white breads, processed meats, sugary beverages).
Quality counts. “These findings underscore the importance of making wise food choices in preventing weight gain and obesity,” said Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH and senior author of the paper. “The idea that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods is a myth that needs to be debunked.”