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Treating obesity with culinary medicine: Could it be a solution?

Obesity is a risk factor for many health conditions. Current treatments include calorie restriction, bariatric surgery, and medications. But the number of people with obesity continues to increase. Many factors lead to weight gain, including the increased availability of calorie-dense foods. Medical News Today looked at whether culinary medicine might be an effective treatment for obesity, and investigated what approaches might work on a population level.

According to the World Health OrganizationTrusted Source (WHO), in 2016 more than 1.9 billion adults worldwide were overweight and, of these, 650 million had obesity. The worldwide prevalence of obesity tripled between 1975 and 2016.

In the United States, more than 40%Trusted Source of adults have obesity, and in the United Kingdom, more than a quarter live with the condition.

Obesity is known to be detrimental to health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list many risks of obesityTrusted Source, including:

increased mortality (death risk) from all causes
high blood pressure (hypertension)
high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides (dyslipidemia)
type 2 diabetes
coronary heart disease
osteoarthritis — a breakdown of cartilage and bone within a joint
sleep apnea and breathing problems
many types of cancerTrusted Source.

A reportTrusted Source published in August 2022 gave the following warning: “Given dire implications in terms of comorbidities and mortality, these updated epidemiological findings call for coordinated actions from local and regional governments, the scientific community and individual patients alike, as well as the food industry for the obesity pandemic to be controlled and alleviated.”

The authors called for coordinated international efforts to combat the obesity pandemic similar to those used against COVID-19.

Why is obesity on the rise?

A recent editorial in the journal ObesityTrusted Source suggested the following explanations for the rise in this condition:

“Increase in per capita food supply, increased availability and marketing of high-calorie and high-glycemic-index foods and drinks, larger food portions, leisure time physical activities being replaced with sedentary activities such as watching television and use of electronic devices, inadequate sleep, and the use of medications that increase weight.”

Dr. Mir Ali, bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, concurred, telling Medical News Today that “the causes of obesity are multifactorial; certainly genetics plays a role; evolution is a very slow process but can also play a role.”

“Primarily, obesity is driven by the change in our diets to more energy-dense foods, a more sedentary lifestyle, and environmental factors, such as urbanization can also play a role,” he explained.

Risks in cases of childhood obesity

Obesity is not increasing only in adults — the number of children with obesity has risen alarmingly. Worldwide, the number of children and adolescents with obesity has increased tenfold since 1975. If this trend continues, soon there may be more children with obesityTrusted Source than there are underweight children.

This is particularly worrying, as obesity when young predisposes a person to many health issues.

Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told MNT: “The younger a child is when developing obesity, the higher the chances of developing health problems as an adult. Furthermore, the earlier the child suffers from obesity, the earlier the health problems begin.”

These health problemsTrusted Source may include fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, menstrual abnormalities, impaired balance, and orthopedic problems.

And children with obesity are likely to continue with obesity into adolescence and even adulthood. According to one analysis of existing studiesTrusted Source, 55% of children with obesity will go on to have obesity in adolescence, and 80% of those adolescents will still have obesity when adults.

Obesity as a global concern

For individuals with obesity, there are treatment options, which Dr. Ali outlined: “Surgery for those with an appropriate body mass index. […] There are newer medications available that have shown promising results in the appropriate patients. Dietary and exercise education/counseling can also be effective for certain individuals, though this is the least effective approach.”

However, according to the WHOTrusted Source, obesity and overweight are no longer just a problem for individuals, but a global epidemic — which it refers to as “globesity” — that is taking over in many parts of the world. And it is not only an issue in industrialized countries; obesity is a growing concern in developing countries.

Speaking to MNT, Dr. Eamon Laird, senior research fellow at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, noted that the issue does not revolve around a preoccupation with outdated beauty stereotypes that view thinness as desirable.

He openly denounced obesity discrimination in healthcare. “No one should be doing any sort of ‘fat shaming,’ which is completely wrong,” he emphasized. “As health professionals, we should be supporting and giving advice on healthy lifestyle goals.”

Instead, he argued that the concern with obesity is due to the numerous health risks linked to this condition. “[W]e also cannot bury our heads in the sand and say obesity is normal and does not matter — it has been scientifically proven that it puts health at a serious increased risk of disease and it needs to be managed,” said Dr. Laird.

So what can be done to address obesity at a sustainable level globally?

One 2011 studyTrusted Source looked at the efficacy of public-health campaigns in combating obesity and concluded that “there is little evidence that community-based interventions and social marketing campaigns specifically targeting obesity provide substantial or lasting benefit.”

The authors suggested that “[a] more appropriate strategy would be to enact high-level policy and legislative changes to alter the obesogenic environmentsTrusted Source in which we live by providing incentives for healthy eating and increased levels of physical activity.”

But combating the global problem of obesity will take more than just telling people to eat less and exercise more. We need to understand how people interact with their environments, and how that environment influences food intake.

What is culinary medicine?

Culinary medicine has evolved from the growing interest in the relationship of food, eating, and cooking to health. It has been described asTrusted Source “a new evidence-based field in medicine that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine.”

Culinary medicine uses a high-quality, tailored diet, to prevent and treat disease and maintain well-being. The aim is to enable individuals to use food and drink safely and effectively to achieve desired health outcomes.

Using food as medicine is not a new concept, and for some conditions, changing eating patterns can be as effective as medication.

An anti-inflammatory diet has been shownTrusted Source to provide relief from rheumatoid arthritis, and the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, and whole grains, and includes less ultra-processed foods and meat than a typical Western diet — is effective in preventing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetesTrusted Source.

So might culinary medicine be an effective way to combat obesity?

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