The World’s Obesity Problem Needs a Tailored Solution

A one-size-fits-all approach will not work, but harnessing the power of the mind may help.

Obesity is a worldwide epidemic. This past July, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that if we do not address obesity, we will be unable to reduce premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases by 30 percent, by 2030. Alarmingly, the WHO report pointed out that no country is currently on track to meet this global target to halt the increase in obesity by 2030.   

The consequences of the obesity epidemic are astonishing. In their report, the WHO shared that the current annual global cost of obesity is $990 billion. Beyond the financial burden, many of us witness the emotional toll of obesity on family, friends, and team members who struggle with its effects. Yet, despite knowing the limits it places on the quality of life and life spans, reversing the rising rates of obesity can seem too high a mountain for many of us to climb.

The will is there, but why can’t we find the way?

Tailored learning for better outcomes

While many of us prefer a simple, magical pill, it’s not the solution. Instead, the key may be found in the brain and its capacity for responding to learning programs tailored to the individual.

When it comes to coaching and physical training, we often hear the same plan: exercise and eat healthy–the same training delivered in the same format to everyone who struggles with obesity. However, research shows that these struggles are often tied to the networks and chemical makeup of the brain.

Given this connection, here are two reasons to turn to tailored learning programs to help end the obesity epidemic:

Reason 1: Gender differences

This past spring, UCLA researchers published findings highlighting differences in the brain’s networks for individuals who experienced mental health adversity early in life. By examining brain networks via MRIs, researchers could see how a woman possessing a higher body mass index (BMI) who experienced early life trauma may be drawn to highly processed foods. The results suggest that training and coaching must differ for these women to experience weight loss.

Reason 2: Resource differences

The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Health Disparities Research, as part of their Neighborhood Atlas initiative, identified specific neighborhoods as being at a disadvantage for health resources, as defined by their income, education levels, crowding, and absence of plumbing resources. Living in areas with less access to healthy food options and affordable health facilities, these individuals already require more tailored support than a generic exercise and healthy eating plan. Moreover, research has shown that people with obesity living in these communities have potentially experienced changes in the chemical makeup of their brains due to increased trans-fatty acid intake. These changes could affect brain processing responsible for emotion regulation, cognition, and reward. The results suggest that supporting individuals who are overweight in these conditions requires a careful selection of interventions.

Harnessing the power of the mind

To change behavior, we first must understand that our brains are responsible for how we eat and our relationships with food. Instead of suggesting to a female struggling with obesity that she eat better and work out, offer a tailored program that harnesses the power of the mind and focuses on specific emotional regulation techniques.

These three simple techniques tap into brain activation:

  1. Practice mindful eating. This technique wakes the mind to one’s senses as they eat. By keeping a close tab on the mind when eating, we glean insight into the what, why, and how (much) of a person’s eating habits. As you eat, tell your mind what the food tastes like and what you enjoy about each bite.
  2. Keep track of triggers. By tracking triggers, we can be aware of the feelings that trigger eating, like stress, sadness, or boredom. As you eat, identify why you picked up the food and what you feel when you pick up the food, and write it down.
  3. Engage in stress-reduction techniques. Prepare an alternative activity to eating. For example, instead of picking up food, practice breathing deeply or try coloring or doodling.

Research supports that health and wellness training requires more than delivering a one-size-fits-all approach. To solve the obesity problem, we have to provide tailored programs that help tap into the capabilities of a person’s mind.

Article originally published on October 24 on

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