A recent global study published in The Lancet shows that diet-related deaths outranked smoking-related deaths in 2017. Eleven million deaths among adults were from dietary risks, the report said. The path to obesity and tips to change course can mean life or death.
A comparative graph on the website for The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an organization begun by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that dietary risks are now the leading cause of death worldwide. Not only do dietary fatalities outrank malnutrition deaths by a 3 to 1 ratio, they also caused more deaths than high blood pressure and tobacco use. Most dietary-related deaths come from cardiovascular disease, with neoplasms coming in a distant second place and diabetes and kidney diseases in third place. Identifying how we got here can help us break bad habits and reverse our course on the path to obesity.
Obesity in Children of the Digital Age
“In the past 30 years, rates of obesity in children have doubled—and quadrupled in adolescents—according to the Center for Disease Control, or CDC,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “In addition to the same risk factors seen in adults, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer, kids and teenagers also exhibit higher risk for Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, which is a condition where blood glucose levels suggest a higher risk for the development of diabetes.”
Dr. Crittenden suggests that increasing time in front of a screen and decreased play time are partly to blame. In addition, parents who strive to raise “successful, overachieving kids” often cut sports and other physical activities from their schedule. “With the social pressure to raise children who are the best, who are winners, it can be difficult to continue participation in sports if they’re not particularly skilled at a sport,” she said.
Behavioral Tips to Combat Obesity and Live Longer
There seem to be as many dietary plans as nutritionists these days. Most nutritionists focus on scaling back on carbohydrates, processed meats, and refined sugars, but the right nutrition plan may be difficult to find. In the meantime, there are several, helpful behavioral patterns for obesity prevention that we can follow to live longer, healthier lives.
Eating off of a smaller plate may help reduce caloric intake, since we tend to associate an empty plate with the end of a meal. Of course, we may be tempted to go back for seconds, but we can avoid this by not placing food at the table at which you eat, since it encourages second helpings. “Other tips include refraining from watching TV while you eat and limit eating out to about once a week,” Dr. Crittenden said.
However, when we eat out, we don’t control the portion sizes or the plate sizes—and most restaurants frown upon adults trying to order from the kids menu. “When you do eat out at a restaurant, nutrition experts […] suggest getting a to-go box at the beginning of the meal and then taking half of the meal home,” Dr. Crittenden said. “People tend to eat more when offered more, so if we get a take-home box at the outset of the meal and pack up half of our food, we may be less likely to overindulge.”
Whether we’re starting kids off on the right foot by encouraging play and discouraging screen time, or changing subtle behaviors like our plate and portion sizes, lowering the mortality rate from poor diets is within our grasp. While eating healthy foods and exercising are main factors in the prevention of becoming overweight, obesity awareness and simple lifestyle changes are important as well.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.