Food Policy and Obesity

Obesity is one of the biggest drivers of preventable chronic diseases and healthcare costs in the United States. Currently, estimates for these costs range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. As a complex issue with multifaceted determinants, obesity requires interventions that work on several levels, from the individual to the political. With more than two-thirds of adults and almost a third of children and teenagers in the United States overweight or obese, Mailman School research plays a critical role leading treatment and prevention efforts within the context of obesity and other chronic conditions. This is especially necessary in addressing growing disparities in obesity, with the highest rates among Black adults (47.8%), followed by Latino (42.5%) and White (32.6%) adults, and similar inequities persisting among children as well.

By exploring the vast range of determinants and how they interact with the public’s health over the lifecourse, Mailman researchers tap into the many factors of health to investigate their influences on obesity and related health issues. Policy research includes a study led by Y. Claire Wang, ScD, associate professor of Health Policy and Management and Co-Director of the Obesity Prevention Initiative, which specifies the need for states to focus on effective obesity prevention and treatment with Medicaid expansions to curtail obesity-related costs. Sociomedical Sciences professors James Colgrove and Rachel Shelton, both at the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, analyzed the debate around mandatory labeling of calories on menus across the nation to determine how message framing about obesity differs among private industry and public health.

Mailman researchers study the influences of industry on obesity, such as in the case of “big soda” and its role in child and adolescent health, and how fast food restaurants can change cultural norms. Shakira Suglia, ScD, assistant professor of Epidemiology, studied the built environment as a critical component in obesity research, citing characteristics such as green spaces, neighborhood walkability, and access to healthy food. Her colleague Andrew Rundle, associate professor of Epidemiology, explored the connection between gestational weight gain in pregnancy and the long-term likelihood of obesity of both mother and child. Research also investigates genetic and physiological factors, such as how the Dutch Famine during World War II affected development in later life, how maternal antibiotic use can increase the risk of offspring obesity, and how other obesity risk factors can actually begin before birth.

The comprehensiveness of food policy and obesity research at the Mailman School enriches the understanding of how to tackle this complex epidemic, which is rising in every nation on earth. Mailman School faculty are leading the way forward in leveraging data to make nutritious food accessible, increase physical activity and informing policies to encourage healthier choices.