The Ten Biggest Stories of 2021 in Obesity and Health

We can’t believe it either. This weird, messy year is winding down and it’s time to figure out what just happened as we prepare to go into an new year of promise and uncertainty. In obesity and health, 2021 was full of change, confusion, and new insights. We started the year with a raging pandemic, came to believe by mid year that it was behind us, and now we’re ending with a harsh reminder. The virus wants us to know it’s not done with us.

Here’s our take on some of the key stories that shaped 2021 in obesity and health.

1. COVID, Obesity, and Vaccines

Without a doubt, COVID-19 vaccines are closest thing to a medical miracle we are likely to see. Within a year after the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, we had vaccines that could cut the risk of serious illness and death dramatically. What’s more, the obesity catastrophizers proved to be wrong when they speculated that vaccines wouldn’t work well for people with obesity. All three vaccines authorized by the U.S. FDA proved to work equally well for people with or without obesity. We were delighted to participate in a position paper in Obesity to affirm this.

Now the big question that lies ahead is how well these miraculous vaccines can stay ahead of the virus as it mutates.

2. Health Tech Is Having Its Moment

This has been a year when telehealth and health tech made incredible leaps forward. Investors poured 24 billion dollars into health tech companies in 2021. Telehealth grew explosively with the emergence of the pandemic and in 2021, consolidated those gains and continued to grow. Despite the inertia that is always present in healthcare, it’s becoming plain that telehealth will be a big factor in obesity care.

3. Diets Are Dead

The whole concept of diets has been in retreat for a while now. But 2021 may have been the year that drove a stake through its heart. Keto diets have lost their luster this year. Vegan-ish and plant-based diets are working hard to capture the public imagination. But this trend is more about grasping for healthier patterns of eating than about strict diets in pursuit of weight loss.

However, the clearest sign that diets are dead comes from marketers. “Diet” drinks are disappearing from the marketplace. Everyone is catching up with Coke Zero and the word now is zero sugar.

4. Ultra-Processed Replaced the Sugar Boogeyman

We’re not done hating sugar yet. But we are winding up to hate ultra-processed foods even more. If you have any doubt, look at hype that Newsweek recently pumped out about addictive ultra-processed food that’s killing us all. But this subject is complicated and we’re eating more ultra-processed foods than ever before. So the hype doesn’t serve us well.

5. Body Positivity Is Here to Stay

People are done with body shaming. One of the top podcasts on health and fitness, Maintenance Phase, comes from two prolific authors who are deeply skeptical about equating weight with health. These are passionate advocates for erasing weight bias from our culture. So their words are sometimes quite sharp.

But they are not alone in their passion for this subject. It will take more than just a calm recitation of facts and data to stop weight bias, so we are glad to see the sustained passion.

6. Obesity Meds Making Strides

This was a year of big strides forward in anti-obesity medicines. Wegovy (semaglutide) came into the market with people labeling it a “game changer” for obesity medicine. We can debate the meaning of it, but one thing is not debatable. Tremendous progress is coming in obesity care because of new antiobesity medicines like semaglutide, tirzepatide, and cagrilinitide.

7. A Better Understanding of Human Metabolism

“Life is a game of turning energy into kids,” says Herman Pontzer and this reflects some of his thinking about human metabolism across the lifespan. With an impressive new study, he and an extensive team of collaborators have “blown away” some of the smartest people in this field. This research will not be the last word, but it will almost certainly bring us forward in our understanding of metabolism and human health.

8. Advocacy, Conspiracies, and Science

We are in a pandemic of misinformation and a crisis of trust. Conspiracy theories had some people dying preventable deaths due to COVID-19. Nutrition and health inspire passionate advocacy, which an analysis of 38,368 comments on new dietary guidelines made plain. But passion is no substitute for objective science and to an increasing degree, it gets in the way.

9. A Pandemic of Mental Health Concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a crisis of mental health as much as anything. From burned out health workers to traumatized children, the coronavirus has taken a toll on many people who are not even infected with it. The impact on the mental health of our youth is especially daunting. Because the relationship between mental health and obesity is robust, we are seeing obesity rising among youth, along with mental health concerns.

10. Plant-Based and Ultra-Processed Foods Dazzle

It’s hard to miss the fact that 2021 has been a big year for ultra-processed plant-based foods. Investors are pouring money into this idea. Hype about the dangers of meat consumption and production are adding to the attraction of fake meat. We’ll eventually see if this flashy trend is merely a flash in the pan.

News, painting by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis/ WikiArt

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December 17, 2021