August 28, 2014

U.S. Counties Winning the War on Obesity

Patrick Ng, 2014 GHLI Fellow

This summer I had the exceptional opportunity to help investigate the obesity epidemic in the U.S. I traveled with GHLI researchers across the country to five counties that, in spite of their socioeconomic profiles, which were associated with higher rates of obesity, were faring astonishingly well with rates among the lowest in the country. We termed these counties “positive deviants” – or counties that were statistical role models – and hypothesized that the strategies by which these counties marketed, integrated, and sustained programs for healthy living were making the difference.

Our team gathered data by interviewing local community leaders to pinpoint factors that would foster an environment conducive to healthy living. Though each location was unique –some characterized by arid deserts and others by lush hills–we could not help but notice striking similarities across the counties. 

We observed the importance of having open-minded, persistent, and empowering leaders in the fight against obesity – from school nurses to master gardeners to non-profit organizers – who worked tenaciously to see their families and friends thrive. These champions set an example for their colleagues who also responded with self-drive.

Community pride ran deep: both young and old showed their dedication through strong involvement in volunteering and through honest dialogue. Many of these counties showed exceptional openness to modern standards for “healthy living,” some times even at odds with local traditions. This cultural resilience and flexibility seems to have made these counties particularly nimble in combatting obesity – a very social disease. 

Our interviews have suggested that a proactive, supportive environment is needed to transform awareness about obesity into action and, ultimately, long-term change.

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