Solving NYC's obesity problem

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As citywide numbers are rising, officials and nutritionists focus on messages about healthy habits


  • NYC Health's “The Sour Side of Sweet” campaign. Photo: oinonio, via flickr

Chantel Samms was one of roughly two million New York City adults battling obesity. Samms, a 35-year-old Queens resident, struggled with obesity. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Samms weighed 250 pounds at one point.

She was far from alone. The number of obese adults in New York City overall has risen from 27.5 to 32.4 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to a study conducted by the New York City Health Department and the New York University School of Medicine that was published in July.

Bad eating habits and four pregnancies contributed to Samms' obesity. However, she was able to turn her life around: Healthier eating, her love for running and practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu now have Samms at 155 pounds. The city's Health Department, dietitians and fitness instructors are working on programs and giving advice to not only help adults with obesity, but raise awareness to prevent the dangerous condition altogether.

“New Yorkers are up against a lot when it comes to eating healthy,” said Kim Kessler, a NYC Health Department official. “Portions are huge and unhealthy foods, junk foods and sugary drinks are heavily marketed.”

Kessler said the Health Department reaches about 30,000 New Yorkers each year with nutrition education that encourages them to avoid surgery drinks, drink tap water, be physically active and eat fruits and vegetables.

For obese or overweight people, one solution is dieting. But it's not easy. Mary Jane Detroyer, a dietitian, nutritionist and personal trainer who practices on East 57th Street in Manhattan, was adamant that the hardest part of a diet plan is actually getting the ball rolling.

“Most people eat for reasons other than hunger,” she said. “Not just quantity but types of foods. If a person is truly motivated to lose weight and is not able, they need to be working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and their doctor needs to have an understanding of how issues like depression, loneliness, anger, etc. result in using food to cope.”

Detroyer's advice is to focus on hunger and fullness when one eats, but not skip meals. She suggested avoiding too much sugar while adding fresh fruits and vegetables to diets instead of packaged food. Detroyer encouraged anyone starting a diet to make small, significant changes that they can stick with, as trying to accomplish too much with a diet has discouraged many who have tried.

Samms said a driving force behind her weight gain was the type of foods she ate and how she thought about food. Her parents came from Jamaica and Haiti, and Samms said food was like a “cultural affirmation” for her.

“When I cooked and ate the food, it made me feel closer to my parents and heritage,” she said.

Her cuisine featured lots of rice, beans, meats and other starchy, root vegetables like banana plantains and yuca. Samms said she also enjoyed indulging in American favorites like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and french fries.

She has since changed her diet to mostly feature vegetables and lean cuts of meat.

Frank Perez, a certified trainer at Elegance in Fitness on West 27th Street in Manhattan, said cardio is the best form of exercise for anyone dealing with obesity. Options include ellipticals, stationary bikes, treadmills and simply walking.

“Walk everywhere and carry a bottle of water,” Perez said.

There's another solution to the obesity issue: preventing it from happening in the first place.

Detroyer said educating people on the causes and dangers of obesity is crucial, especially if many of the people from the study live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.

“People with less education want to live the good life, how they perceive others, and so often buy processed fast food and soft drinks,” she said. “Education is key. People need to value their lives to put the effort into taking care of themselves. People do not make change unless they can understand how and what gets in the way of change. Research supports that people can lose weight and keep it off if they have a support system while they are doing it.”

She said it's unfortunate that the insurance system does not support education or visits to a dietitian for nutrition counseling, while schools funded by government nutrition programs don't provide children with the best meals.

“So children start off on the wrong foot,” she said.

Kessler said the Health Department is making an effort to change the dietary environment through policies, educating consumers on what's in their food and the dangers of obesity, expanding access to healthier food and creating more opportunities and spaces for physical activity. Kessler added that obese people are at risk for Type 2 diabetes, some cancers, arthritis, strokes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The department has worked to get schools, senior centers and homeless centers to adopt the NYC Food Standards, an evidence-based nutrition policy. It has expanded Shop Healthy NYC!, a program specifically aimed at increasing access to healthy food in neighborhoods with high obesity rates. Some of the department's public health campaigns include “The Sour Side of Sweet,” advising against sugary beverages like soda, iced tea, sports drinks and energy drinks, and “Drink NYC Tap Water,” a series of 13 20-second commercials featuring children drinking water.

Samms said the reason she ventured on her weight loss journey was because she feared the negative health consequences of obesity. Working as a telemetry nurse, she witnessed patients with heart failure and chest pain.

“The amount of medication I saw these patients on just to function scared the living daylights out of me,” Samms said. “I was seeing all this and was like, 'Oh God, no, I don't want this to be me. Damn it, I'm going to end up like these patients. I need to stop it.'”

Samms has lost roughly 100 pounds from her highest weight.

Over 32 percent of New York City adults remain obese while an additional 34.4 percent are overweight, as of 2014. The problem isn't limited to New York, which is actually doing well compared to the national numbers. Per the 2013-14 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 38 percent of American adults are obese.

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