Tag Archives: obesity

Does this state make my butt look big?

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

A study published this month in the journal Obesity reports that the largest percentage of obese people in the United States live in the Great Plains, not in the South, as surveys have long indicated.

Researchers found 41 percent obesity in a census region that includes Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, while the East Central South region—Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky – weighed in with 31 percent obesity. Mississippi and Alabama have long ranked first and second as the most obese states in the nation, according to data compiled by the CDC.

The study suggests the dubious honor of being the fattest region in the U.S. should go to the nation’s breadbasket, not to the buckle of its BBQ belt.

“That’s a pretty big difference,” said senior author George Howard, Dr.P.H., chair of biostatistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Don’t get me wrong, 31 percent obesity is not good, but it’s not the worst.”

The difference is important, too, because these kinds of rankings often help determine which states get federal public health dollars for research and anti-obesity campaigns.

How could this happen? Blame a problem that bedevils all kinds of research: self-reported data. Continue reading

Government officials, researcher make case for policy influencing healthy behavior #ahcj13

Mina Kim

About Mina Kim

Mina Kim is a health reporter at KQED-San Francisco. She is attending Health Journalism 2013 on an AHCJ-California Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by The California HealthCare Foundation.

Well-structured, comprehensive health policy can change behaviors according to panelists Susan Kansagra, Manish Sethi and Giridhar Mallya. They have been working to address different health issues – gun violence, smoking, and obesity – and shared their strategies at Health Journalism 2013.

Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning at Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, helped launch a campaign to combat obesity there and, after decades of rising obesity rates, the city is seeing declines. The key, Mallya said, was in treating the issue as an environmental disease rather than in individual problem, and that meant altering the environment to give people a chance at being healthy.

“Changing the context is really the sweet spot of public health,” Mallya said. “Change the context so people can default to healthy decisions.” Continue reading

Experts stress lifestyle changes as prevention, treatment for diabetes #ahcj13

Diabetes is prevalent in the United States, and the numbers continue to balloon.

In a Health Journalism 2013 session focusing on type 2 diabetes, a panel of experts discussed the threats of the disease, its growth and possible treatment. The panel was moderated by Tennesseean reporter Tom Wilemon. Continue reading

Reuters explains Big Food’s remarkable lobbying success

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Investigating for Reuters, Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts analyzed lobbying records and found that, in the past few years, the food industry has dramatically stepped up its spending in Washington and, they write, “largely dominated policymaking – pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet.” They give examples.

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.

And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

That success has come through what the authors imply is a sort of big-tobacco model, in which the industry combines promises of self-regulation with huge amounts of money, and thus creates an irresistible package for lawmakers. For a blow-by-blow on how the lobbying muscle swayed the decision-makers in recent battles, I strongly recommend you read the full piece, which draws heavily from both data and extensive interviews. Particularly interesting? The examples of how the Citizens United decision has impacted far more than just election politics.

Battle against childhood obesity is complicated

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Maureen O’Hagan and her colleagues at The Seattle Times have put together a sprawling package of stories on the fight against childhood obesity in their new series, “Feeling the Weight.” We’ll break it down story-by-story.

Kids battle the lure of junk food
Local agencies are spending millions to provide healthy alternatives to Seattle-area youth, but they — to say nothing of the youth themselves — are faced with a seemingly insurmountable deluge of tasty treats that tempt teens at every turn.

State still seeks winning strategy against childhood obesity
For a decade, Washington’s anti-obesity strategy has focused on providing kids with access to health alternatives.

So far, the results are discouraging. A push to put more fresh produce in poor neighborhoods’ corner stores, for instance, is struggling. And recent studies suggest the proliferation of farmers markets has done little to change diets or behavior. The number of overweight and obese kids continues to climb.

In other words, we might be spending a whole lot of money on efforts that miss the mark.

How to help your kids lose weight healthfully
The trick, she writes, is to focus on healthy behavior rather than on weight loss.

Parents stand between kids and junk food
O’Hagan’s profiles of parents of obese children shatter a few stereotypes and illustrate just how complex the issue is.

What readers had to say about childhood-obesity topic
Readers weighed in with advice, criticism, observations and more.


Covering Obesity: A Guide for Reporters

Covering ObesityThe prospect of covering such a broad, engaging and important topic as obesity can be overwhelming. This guide, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is designed to help journalists cover a wide range of stories, whether writing on deadline or researching a multipart series. It offers assistance on calculating body mass index, finding obesity statistics on the state level, gauging the quality of school district wellness policies, finding innovative school nutrition policies and much more.

Obesity doctor calls journalists’ statistical knowledge into question

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, writes about two studies about obesity and questions whether journalists are skilled enough in statistical analysis to accurately report on them.

Freedhoff says a new report refutes an earlier study – published in the New England Journal of Medicine and widely reported by the media – as being statistically flawed. And he is skeptical the new study will receive attention from the journalists who reported the first study.

The original study, “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” by Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and James H. Fowler, Ph.D., was widely reported with headlines proclaiming that “Obesity is socially contagious” in 2007.

A new study by Indiana University’s Russell Lyons, published in Statistics, Politics, and Policy, claims “the assumptions behind the statistical procedures used were insufficiently examined.”

As Freedhoff notes, the NEJM has an impact factor of 50, while Statistics, Politics, and Policy has an impact factor of 0.857, leading one to wonder how many reporters have even heard of the new study.

But Freedhoff – who admits he’s no statistics expert – questions whether journalists will report on the new study because they do not have the statistical knowledge to do so.

All in all, even if you’re not a statistician, Lyons’ paper is worth a sober read and reflection, and here’s something else to chew on – the journalists who were originally all over Christakis’ and Fowler’s work? I’d bet every last penny I’ve got that not a single one of them were skilled enough in statistical analysis to analyze it. Really, why should they have been? They’re journalists, not statisticians. No, instead they smelled a good story, and ran with it. Those same journalists who shouted from the rooftops that obesity’s contagious? I’m betting the vast majority of them are going to be silent on this one, yet wouldn’t re-reporting be the socially responsible, ethical, and journalistic right thing to do?

Update: Brian Reid found this paper, “Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior,” that appears to be a response to Lyon’s research – Christakis and Fowler reference his critique specifically at least twice in the paper.

So, reporters, let’s hear what you think: Do you know enough about statistics to analyze and report on the new study? Or were you even aware of the new study?

Covering Medical ResearchIt’s certainly worth pointing to AHCJ’s most recent slim guide here: Covering Medical Research, which helps journalists analyze and write about health and medical research studies.

It offers advice on recognizing and reporting the problems, limitations and backstory of a study, as well as publication biases in medical journals and it includes 10 questions you should answer to produce a meaningful and appropriately skeptical report. This guide, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is a road map to help you do a better job of explaining research results for your audience.

An earlier slim guide, “Covering Obesity: A Guide for Reporters,” also might come in handy for covering the topic.