This week marks the start of Obesity Week in Atlanta, a joint meeting of The Obesity Society and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.  Rhona Applebaum, Ph.D., Coca-Cola’s Chief Science & Health Officer, connected with conference attendee and presenter Jim Hill, Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at the University of Colorado. Below, he shares his thoughts on how to stem the obesity epidemic:

RHONA: Obesity Week will bring together some of the best and brightest minds in obesity prevention. What do you think the conference can achieve?

JIM: Researchers will discuss how to develop real, science-based solutions to the problem. Until now, many tactics to halt the obesity epidemic relied too heavily on restriction and regulation. These approaches sought to address obesity through modifying food intake alone.  I have serious concerns about that, and I believe that the majority of those at the meeting agree. Many recognize that we should focus on energy balance, which means burning calories through exercise while restricting calories consumed. Unfortunately, the “silent majority” of obesity researchers are not actively speaking out.  This meeting could provide the forum where top researchers come together, share information and network – rather than just meeting in small groups with other like-minded thinkers.   

RHONA: Energy balance has gotten a fair amount of traction in recent years. At Coca-Cola, we’ve talked about not only calorie intake but also the decline of physical activity and how much we should be moving — as well as standing.  What are some of the newer aspects you intend to highlight?

JIM:  Energy balance is an essential framework for understanding obesity.  To repeat, we can’t continue to think about obesity from solely a food perspective or a physical activity vantage point. The two are so interrelated that it’s impossible to separate them. What have we learned?  We must remember two essential points from the science. First, most people cannot achieve energy balance at a healthy body weight with a low level of physical activity. Second, we have decades of research showing food restriction is not an effective long-term way to manage weight. We need to talk about eating smarter rather than eating less. This works if the population is physically active. 

RHONA: Earlier this year we launched our “Coming Together” initiative which draws on real-world learnings that when people come together to solve issues, great things happen. I know you feel the same in terms of the value of public-private partnerships to help address issues, including obesity. Can you talk about that?

JIM:  I agree that public-private partnerships will be essential to effectively reverse the obesity epidemic, and the idea has caught on in many quarters.  How can we expect to change what people eat without involving food and beverage companies and restaurants?  How can we expect to increase physical activity without working with industries whose products help promote activity as well as those that lead to inactivity in schools and at in the workplace? People who support regulation and restriction say we cannot include the private sector in creating solutions. In fact, we can’t solve this problem without the help of the private sector.

This will not be easy and will not happen overnight. We have to be realistic about what each partner can accomplish, and we should give them credit for the positive efforts they make. In academia, we conduct research to find out what works, but we have relatively limited channels, such as educational websites and public service announcements. Consider how weak that is in comparison to high-profile companies that have resources and expertise to get messages out. If we could all agree on the messages we want out and engage industry and other sectors to help get them out there, we might actually begin to move the needle. A great place to start would be with the message, “Move more and eat smarter.”

Jim Hill Ph.D. is Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine, Executive Director of The Anschutz Health and Wellness Center and the Director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado.  Dr. Hill is also the Director of the Colorado Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC).   A nationally renowned expert in obesity, Dr. Hill is the author of the recently published book State of Slim.  Jim will be presenting his latest research on the role of physical activity as a treatment for obesity at Obesity Week 2013 in Atlanta.