New N.C. Guide Offers Strategies to Lower Rate of Overweight, Obesity

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New guide stresses the importance of making healthy food options available, accessible and affordable.

Portrait of Carolyn Dunn
Carolyn Dunn

In North Carolina, two out of three adults and one in three children are overweight or obese. To address these persistently high rates, a coalition of agencies, organizations and professionals has developed its latest guide aimed at promoting healthy eating and physical activity.

Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina released the 24-page guide, “North Carolina’s Plan to Address Overweight and Obesity,” at NC State University on Thursday, Dec. 5.

The document spells out strategies for professionals who play a role in preventing and managing these conditions and related chronic illnesses.

NC State’s Carolyn Dunn is a founding member of the ESMMNC movement. The William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences has been instrumental in developing each of the three Eat Smart, Move More guides for professionals published since 2007. She chaired the committee that wrote the current plan.

Stress and Sleep Are Key

One thing new with the latest publication is the inclusion of stress and sleep in a list of core behaviors that influence a person’s weight. Each of the earlier guides emphasized behaviors related to physical activity and eating habits, but recent research indicates that stress and sleep are also important.

“There are hundreds of factors that contribute, but there’s scientific evidence that some of those factors are on the front line,” she said. “We felt enough evidence had been presented in the professional literature to elevate sleep and stress to that list of core behaviors.”

When you’re sleep-deprived, your hunger and satiety mechanism doesn’t work correctly.

Dunn said that every week brings new evidence of the importance of sleep for health. “When you’re sleep-deprived – and in most populations that’s less than seven hours a night – your hunger and satiety mechanism … doesn’t work correctly.

“You’re tired, you’re lethargic and so you are less likely to be physically active,” she said. “Also, because you’re tired, your body continually searches for energy. You’re eating things you wouldn’t otherwise eat, and you are eating more.”

Researchers are also learning more about the influence of chronic stress on overweight and obesity. “It’s not just eating because you’re stressed out. Stress hormones themselves are being linked to an increased risk for overweight and obesity,” Dunn said.

Genetic Code, ZIP Code – or Both?

There’s also a rising recognition that certain socioeconomic factors are “amazingly powerful,” Dunn added.

A person’s ZIP code is as much a predictor of their health and lifespan as their genetic code.

“We have learned that where a person lives or a person’s ZIP code is as much a predictor of their health and lifespan as their genetic code – and in some cases, more so. Do they make enough money to feed their families? Do they have access to healthy food? Do they have a neighborhood that’s designed in a way that they can walk safely? Do they have a support system? Do they have access to health care?”

While nutrition education programs are important, such factors can stymie those efforts.

Available, Affordable and Accessible

“It’s not just a matter of teaching individuals about the importance of physical activity or how to prepare healthy meals,” she said. “Professionals also need to consider where people are coming from and what other issues they’re dealing with. These things may prevent them from being able to hear that educational message.

“We need to help people make better choices in what they eat,” Dunn said. “We can do this by making healthier choices available, affordable and accessible.”

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