An overweight person sits on a chair in Times Square

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January 8, 2014

Ask Me Anything: Deborah Cohen on How to End the Obesity Epidemic

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

After the chaos and overindulgence of the holiday season, January is when many people attempt to improve all kinds of health behaviors. We aim to get more sleep, reduce our stress, join a local gym, or finally kick that smoking habit.

But perhaps the most common New Year's resolution is improving our eating habits. According to Dr. Deborah Cohen, who hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit yesterday, that's much easier said than done.

Cohen is a public health expert who specializes in how environmental factors influence health. She's also the author of A Big Fat Crisis, a new book that unpacks:

  • the complex range of factors that have fueled the U.S. obesity epidemic
  • the complicated reasons that most people, despite best intentions, have trouble losing weight
  • the role of aggressive marketing strategies and other parts of our food environment
  • and what solutions could “transcend the advice found in diet books” and put an end to the obesity epidemic.

In an op-ed published this week in the Los Angeles Times Cohen described how the odds are stacked against dieters. In the Washington Post last week she described common myths about obesity. And her book has already gained the attention of the New York Post, Boston Globe, and Huntington News, among others.

In yesterday's “Ask Me Anything” session, Cohen answered questions on a variety of issues related to obesity and diet. Here's a taste:

Which individual, organization, government, or company should be blamed for not combatting obesity—or even for encouraging it for their own gains?

Cohen: Over the past few decades, the food system has been designed to maximize the sale of calories. I think the most important lever is at the point of purchase, where people choose what to buy and eat. So restaurants that serve too much food and food of poor nutritional quality are responsible. Supermarkets that encourage impulse buying of junk food—they're paid by manufacturers to do so—are also responsible.

Do you think that “big is beautiful” and “plus-size models” encourage obesity?

Cohen: No. It's a way to cope with the current high rates of obesity, but it fails to point out the epidemic's true causes. What we need to do is shatter the myth that body size has anything to do with moral character. The fact is that the obesity epidemic is more about irresponsible business practices than irresponsible people.

Have you tried the Grilled Stuft Nacho at Taco Bell? Thoughts?

Cohen: No, but I am working on a project with loncheras (food trucks) in Los Angeles to help them develop and sell “La Comida Perfecta”—the perfect meal. These meals have at least one cup of vegetables, half a cup of fruit, no more than three ounces of meat, include whole grains and some dairy equivalents, and are less than 700 calories. You should try one!

Look out for more AMAs with RAND experts in the future.

— Pete Wilmoth