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Treating obesity with compassion and science

Obesity affects millions of people in communities across the country, yet efforts to address the causes have been too diffused. The first idea to help people establish a healthy weight is usually a trip to the doctor. However, doctors do not always advise preventative efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle and simply prescribe patients with two words, “lose weight.” This can be discouraging for many people and can eventually prevent them from seeking the care they need.  

They are not alone in this struggle. Since 1980, the number of people affected by obesity has more than doubled across the world. Currently, guidelines note that almost two-thirds of American adults are recommended for weight-loss treatment for obesity. Of those, more than eight in 10 should be considered for treatment with medication, and almost one in four could be candidates for bariatric surgery.  

{mosads}It is fair to say that our country faces an obesity epidemic. Even within Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) communities, there are differences amongst the population. Data show NHPIs are 30 percent more likely to be obese than whites and are twice as likely to develop diabetes. While there has been some progress to slow the increased rates of obesity, the American Medical Association designated it as a disease in 2013 and accounts for an estimated $316 billion in health care costs in 2010.  

In fact, doctors and health care professional are given recommendations to consider all evidence-based medical strategies when it comes to treating obesity. However, a survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly half of people affected by obesity say they have not been advised by a physician about how to maintain a healthy weight.  

What’s more, many still believe that a major reduction in weight is required to experience benefits, despite data that suggest that weight loss of 5 to 10 percent improves obesity-related health risks, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, hyperlipidemia, type 2 diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea. Given that AAs and NHPIs face higher rates of chronic diseases, weight loss should be a priority. However, national surveys report Asian Americans have low rates of physical activity with nearly half of the population not meeting federal guidelines for activity. 

That’s why my organization, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), joined more than 35 leading U.S. health care organizations—together representing more than 800,000 health care professionals—for National Obesity Care Week (NOCW), a groundbreaking public awareness campaign to encourage a comprehensive approach to treatment that considers all available evidence-based medical strategies, including diet and lifestyle adjustments, medication, and bariatric surgery.  

To address the underlying issues surrounding low rates of physical activity in AA and NHPI communities, APIAHF recently funded community-based organizations across the country to create Project I-CAN, focused on increasing opportunities for physical activity and well-being for AA and NHPI children age eight and under. Through support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the project aims to decrease childhood obesity by building community support for physical activity through increasing access to the natural and safe built environment. Through locally based and culturally tailored strategies, we will move forward using the momentum created by NOCW and other public awareness campaigns. 

A week of awareness isn’t enough to solve the challenges in how we care for people affected obesity, but is it real progress. These initiatives are critical to promoting a national conversation about broader solutions to address this problem and offer useful resources that will help doctors and patients alike. Disease-awareness campaigns have been successful in reducing heart disease, stroke deaths, and cancer. It’s time we turned our attention to obesity with the same vigor.  

With increased education, conversation, support, and action in our communities, we can move closer to creating healthier communities which support healthy eating and active living, as well as ensuring that health care providers have the tools they need to deliver comprehensive and compassionate care to patients affected by obesity.

Chin is president and chief executive officer of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), a national health justice organization which influences policy, mobilizes communities, and strengthens programs and organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.


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