From Abstractions to Reality at the PHA Summit

The Partnership for a Healthier American (PHA) came from a desire by First Lady Michelle Obama to do something about the ever rising levels of childhood obesity. It was the private complement to her Let’s Move! campaign. But here’s the thing. The word obesity was absent from the vocabulary of PHA. It’s been all about health and vitality and exclamation points. Fit and slender kids loving life. Not much size diversity. So, on the opening night of the PHA summit, hearing Board Chair James Gavin address the O-word directly was a refreshing change:

I am a physician, with a specialty in endocrinology, and I have been working for years on chronic metabolic diseases, especially diabetes, and I have focused heavily on the policy and environmental influences that contribute to childhood obesity, a major risk factor for the eventual development of diabetes.

I am honored tonight to be part of this important discussion. While many of us in the medical community know with certainty that obesity is a complex, chronic disease, it is unfortunate that people living with obesity very often experience stigmatization and weight bias.

Bias About Obesity and People Who Have It

Two Kinds of BiasGavin made these comments at a dinner for thought leaders within the partnership. Novo Nordisk’s Blandine LaCroix and Gabriel Smolarz introduced the lived experience and medical facts of obesity. Then ConscienHealth’s Ted Kyle talked about the biases that corrupt our response to obesity. Bias is the major reason we have made so little progress in trying to reverse the trends in obesity, he said.

The bias is two-fold. First, we rely on our biases more than the facts about obesity in making policy. And then, our bias against people with obesity compounds the harm it causes. The solution lies with objectivity, curiosity, and caring. A passion for objectivity can replace the biases that take us off the mark. Curiosity about the true nature of this complex chronic disease can help us erase myths and false presumptions. And caring for the humanity of people affected by obesity can replace the biases we harbor.

Sustainable Solutions

PHA CEO Nancy Roman is looking for real, sustainable solutions, too. She spoke about the summit’s focus on sustainable solutions:

For example, right now, if every human on the earth ate the recommended amount of fish according to the daily dietary guidelines, there would not be one single fish left in the sea. So, we have got to stop having ideas about what is healthy for people but really impossible in terms of sustaining the planet. And we have to start talking about what is healthy, but also viable.

Policy work that’s grounded in reality – not abstractions – is a good place to start for a better response to obesity. With this, the PHA might make some important progress.

Click here and here for more about the summit. For Kyle’s slides, click here.

Abstract, photograph © Ratchanee @ Gatoon / flickr

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April 2, 2019