by Renata Smith, Adelaide Gordon and Nicole Buechler
Read on for the musings of our team members on their insights and experience at ObesityWeek 2014. More to follow next week...
Renata Smith, MPH, - Poster Presentation at ObesityWeek 2014
I attended a session entitled: “Money Talks: How Business and Economic Policies Can Reduce Obesity”. Keeping that topic in mind, I can see the huge potential and positive impact of the following fact which one of the talks touted: “healthy” low-calorie foods drove the growth in the food industry in the last 5-8 years. These products are labeled and considered “Better for You” but are they really good for you? They are (still) packaged and processed foods, many of which contain artificial sweeteners that help lower calorie content, but don’t add nutrients. That’s a big debate, especially in children’s food products.
This related to another session I attended entitled: “Social and Cultural Construction of Children’s Food, and Implications for Intervention”. One of the talks highlighted the history of “kids’ meals” and the social constructs behind them, and how the restaurant industry capitalized on working families who ate out often. But, the story doesn’t end there. Recently, some companies and restaurants are making important positive changes, by offering healthier kids’ meals, with default fruit and vegetable sides. I personally think that is a step in the right direction, and the research shows that making the healthy choice the easy choice can shift social norms.
The most interesting thing that I heard was a talk on epigenetics, the concept that our genes are altered through some interaction with the environment. One presenter was a co-author of a study that originally established a connection between epigenetics and obesity in mice. Waterland’s research has shown that what pregnant mice eat has a dramatic effect on the health, weight, and appearance of their offspring. In addition, the effect of what the mice mothers eat has been shown to last longer than one generation. The most interesting point that Waterland made at his talk, however, was that he does not consider the trans-generational epigenetic effect of maternal diet on obesity in mice to be an example of extra genomic inheritance, but rather a transmission more akin to language. According to Waterland, language, which we have in common with our parents but is not passed on at the biological level, unlike genetics, is a more accurate way to describe how parental feeding influences offspring phenotype.
While attending sessions that were part of the policy track, I learned that healthy food items (Sugar-free, Low-Calorie, Whole Grain, etc.) are a good choice not only for consumers, but, in contrast to popular belief, also for businesses. Researchers have been using computer simulations, called systems modeling techniques, to project how favorable the market is for healthy foods.
Bruce Y. Lee is one of the researchers who discussed the use of simulation modeling, which he has done through his Virtual Population Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Global Obesity Prevention Center. They are using this tool to examine pressing public health concerns. Simulation modeling for obesity prevention is a fascinating application of mathematical and computational analytic tools.