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A $20 million grant was awarded recently to researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health, and UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. The purpose of this federal grant is to conduct in depth research on how to fight obesity, which is a global public health problem that has reached crisis proportions in the U.S. and Canada.
The innovative project at UCLA is taking an entirely new approach to obesity study and research. Instead of having busy individuals in low-income neighborhoods do more physical activity and find more healthy foods, the new project will engage these people as a ‘captive’ audience in places that they often frequent. These include their schools, churches and offices. The healthier food choices will be the default, and they will have to be actively avoided by opting out.
This grant is for five years and is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The grant was awarded with the purpose to address the health disparities that exist in ethnic and racial groups around the US. This effort is part of the CDC’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH).
This new funding from CDC will allow the researchers at UCLA to build on the knowledge of obesity that they gained in their earlier work, and will let them expand the geographic scope of their research.
The researchers will focus on promoting better nutrition and exercise in 30-40 cities in the southeast, midwest and southwest U.S. The focus will be on geographic hubs in those cities, where racial and ethnic minorities make up most of the residents.
This program will be delivered through the national networks of many community-based organizations. This will allow the program to reach many minority populations in these urban areas.
One of the key areas of the UCLA program is Instant Recess, which was developed by one of the researchers on the project 14 years ago. This program focuses on adding short activity breaks into paid time at work, during class time at school and at church services. It also is intended to establish policies to make sure that appealing and healthy food options are available any time food is served at any meetings or gatherings.
Other Major Obesity-Fighting Programs Underway
The United States is not the only battleground in the fight against obesity and the diseases it causes. In Canada, Ontario doctors are assaulting the obesity epidemic in that country. They say that obesity should be combated using some of the same tools that were used to curb tobacco use.
The campaign by the doctors is asking the government to mandate graphic warnings on foods with high calories and low nutritional value. Some of the candidates for such labels include sugared sodas, french fries, cookies, chips and even fruit juices.
The campaign calls for more taxes on sugary and fatty foods, lower taxes on foods that are healthy, and tighter restrictions on junk food sales at sporting events, and at other recreational activities that are often used by children and teens.
According to Doug Weir, MD, president of the Ontario Medical Association, the changes that are needed to combat obesity are not going to happen quickly. However, he said that Western society needs to begin to address the public health epidemic of obesity, or we will be confronted with many types of weight-induced diseases, including cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In Canada, Weir estimated that the health care costs that are directly caused by obesity are up to $2.5 billion US per year. The OMA also noted that 32% of Canadian children and teens are at least overweight, or obese. This is up from 15% in the 1980s.
For the graphic label campaign, the team of doctors imagines using images of unhealthy foods, such as french fries or a pizza, that are branded with images and warnings that catch the eye, the same sort of graphic warnings that have been used effectively on cigarette packs.
For instance, a label for a serving of french fries would note the caloric and fat amounts in the snack, and might have a graphic illustration of the heart disease that such a food can cause.