From Capitol Hill to Corner Store

Alumni Day 2012 explores the challenges of obesity and the role of government.

Just a few decades ago, obesity was not considered a serious public health issue in the United States.

That started to change in the 1970s and has accelerated in recent years, to the point where nearly 66 percent of the U.S. population is now considered either overweight or obese.

“The issue is no longer do we have a problem … the question is what do we do about it,” asked William H, Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During his keynote speech at the 2012 Yale School of Public Health Alumni Day, Dietz identified a number of factors that have contributed to the nation’s obesity trend, among them changes in transportation, food supply, dietary habits, portion sizes and the rise of sugar, fried foods and chips as staples for many.

Obesity-related diseases now cost the nation some $150 billion annually in direct health care costs, a figure that is probably an underestimate, he told dozens of alumni who gathered at the New Haven Lawn Club.

Reversing the current trends will require a sustained and coordinated effort, on par with the government’s response to the health threat posed by tobacco, he said. It will require multiple policy changes that deter people from gaining excessive weight in the first place, while also helping people who are already heavyset slim down.

This will mean reducing the number of calories people consume, decreasing television time, switching from sugared to non-sugared cereals and promoting a healthy amount of daily exercise. He cited first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!”  campaign that promotes physical activity among children as a step in the right direction. “Physical activity is essential,” Dietz said.

YSPH Professor Jeannette Ickovics, who served as moderator of the panel discussion and is director of the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE), told alumni about ongoing efforts to address the problems of obesity and poor nutrition in some of New Haven’s most underserved neighborhoods. CARE’s efforts include promoting healthier lifestyles among public school students, making nutritious food more available through the Healthy Corner Store Initiative and an exhibition at the Peabody Museum of Natural History that outlines the scope of America’s obesity problem and its health threats.

Panelist Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, noted that some of the worst food products in terms of health are also the ones most heavily marketed, especially to children. When cereal manufacturers have been asked why they do this, they maintain that they cannot sell healthier options.

Gretchen Van Wye, Pd.D. ’04, deputy director of the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, outlined some of the provocative public service ads that her agency has produced as part of an effort to fight obesity.

“The evidence is on our side,” said Van Wye, who was also a panelist along with YSPH Professor Rafael Pérez-Escamilla.

Linda C. Degutis, Dr.Ph. ’94, received the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award. She recently left her position at YSPH to become the director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is also past president of the American Public Health Association.

Degutis said her first experience with public health came when she worked in an emergency room as a young woman. It has been exciting journey ever since.

“I plan to keep exploring, keep taking risks, keep pushing the envelope,” Degutis said.

The day ended with a tour of the Big Food exhibition. Alumni walked across the street to the Peabody Museum for a tour guided by Ickovics, who is also the exhibition’s lead curator.

Michael Greenwood