What We Really Know About Obesity


In the United States, more than 2 in every 3 adults are classified as overweight or obese as well as more than 1 in every 3 children. With so much media attention directed towards the obesity epidemic occurring throughout much of the world, it can often be difficult to determine what information is fact, fiction or an over-simplification. The goal of this article to look at various claims made in the media regarding the causes of obesity and compare them with peer reviewed evidence.

Clip #1:

This initial clip takes aim at the efforts to place a junk food tax on items containing high levels of sugar and saturated fat that contribute substantially the problem of obesity. The types of items most prominently targeted include soda and fast food. The narration of the video uses a relatively neutral tone about the issue, but the individuals interviewed here are strongly in favor of this kind of policy that would in turn use the new tax revenues to provide subsidies for fresh produce and other healthy options. It’s suggested that this new cost dynamic will modify people’s behavior in a way that makes them more likely to buy healthier options, thus improving the health of the population overall. Evidence suggests however that solely changing the cost of different kinds of food has minimal effect on overall health. (Silva, Leng, Rawof & Vilakazi, 2016)

Despite higher taxes on junk food showing some decreases in consumption, there is a lack of evidence for any connection to improved rates for obesity. People eating less junk food is certainly a good place to start, but as a self contained method for decreasing obesity it’s lacking. There are also ethical issues raised that go unaddressed in this news piece. Such a tax would undoubtedly be regressive in how it prohibits low income individuals the autonomy to eat what they chose to at its actual market value. (Silva et al., 2016) While those involved in public health policy are decidedly against obesity, for many this issue boils down to a political debate of whether or not government should intervene in such a punitive way on these products.

Clip #2:

This next topic explores the role that proximity to supermarkets plays in the prevalence of obesity, produce consumption and intake of sugary drinks throughout various communities. This video clip from a PBS news hours segment places significant blame for the obesity crisis on lack of easy access to supermarkets for families who live in these “food deserts”. The video explains how for individuals without means of transportation and who live in areas with only convenience stores or fast food easy available, that obesity rates will be higher.

Research does support that people targeted for an obesity intervention, focusing on nutritional education, who lived closer to large supermarkets had better outcomes. (Fiechtner, Kleinman, Melly, Sharifi, Marshall, Block & Taveres, 2016) This leaves a much more nuanced conclusion that supermarket proximity can positively influence reduction in BMI for those actively working towards improved nutrition, but shouldn’t be considered an isolated modification that can significantly alter obesity rates on its own.

Clip #3:

The final source examined is a TED Talk given by a chef named Jamie Oliver called “Teaching Children about Food.” In his presentation he advocates a number of interventions aimed reducing childhood obesity. Among the concepts talked about were early childhood education in school about the importance of eating fresh, whole foods as well as the removal of sugary drinks from the cafeteria. Oliver makes positive claims about the effectiveness of this approach as he’s already begun to see results in his own community.

Our peer reviewed source uses a systematic review of intervention programs targeting obesity in elementary school children. Requirements for inclusion in this study were methods revolving around increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well decreases in sugar sweetened beverages. In addition, the students were educated about nutrition as well given increased opportunity for physical activity. A majority of these studies found a positive connection between intervention and a reduction in BMI. (Brown, Buchan, Baker, Wyatt, Bocalini & Kilgore, 2016)



  Brown, E. C., Buchan, D. S., Baker, J. S., Wyatt, F. B., Bocalini, D. S., & Kilgore, L. (2016). A Systematised Review of Primary School Whole Class Child Obesity Interventions: Effectiveness, Characteristics, and Strategies. Biomed Research International, 20161-15. doi:10.1155/2016/4902714

  Diniz Silva, A. C., Hiang Leng, T., Rawof, N., & Vilakazi, B. (2016). Implementation of a “food tax” to prevent obesity: A critical appraisal. Diabetes & Primary Care, 18(3), 126-130.

Fiechtner, L., Kleinman, K., Melly, S. J., Sharifi, M., Marshall, R., Block, J., & … Taveras, E. M. (2016). Effects of Proximity to Supermarkets on a Randomized Trial Studying Interventions for Obesity. American Journal Of Public Health, 106(3), 557-562. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302986