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Open Access Highly Accessed Opinion

Tackling overweight and obesity: does the public health message match the science?

Katherine Hafekost1*, David Lawrence1, Francis Mitrou1, Therese A O'Sullivan12 and Stephen R Zubrick1

Author affiliations

1 Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Centre for Child Health Research, The University of Western Australia, PO Box 855 West Perth WA6872 Australia

2 School of Exercise and Health Science, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, WA, 6027, Australia

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Citation and License

BMC Medicine 2013, 11:41  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-41

Published: 18 February 2013

Abstract

Background

Despite the increasing understanding of the mechanisms relating to weight loss and maintenance, there are currently no validated public health interventions that are able to achieve sustained long-term weight loss or to stem the increasing prevalence of obesity in the population. We aimed to examine the models of energy balance underpinning current research about weight-loss intervention from the field of public health, and to determine whether they are consistent with the model provided by basic science. EMBASE was searched for papers published in 2011 on weight-loss interventions. We extracted details of the population, nature of the intervention, and key findings for 27 articles.

Discussion

Most public health interventions identified were based on a simple model of energy balance, and thus attempted to reduce caloric consumption and/or increase physical activity in order to create a negative energy balance. There appeared to be little consideration of homeostatic feedback mechanisms and their effect on weight-loss success. It seems that there has been a lack of translation between recent advances in understanding of the basic science behind weight loss, and the concepts underpinning the increasingly urgent efforts to reduce excess weight in the population.

Summary

Public health weight-loss interventions seem to be based on an outdated understanding of the science. Their continued failure to achieve any meaningful, long-term results reflects the need to develop intervention science that is integrated with knowledge from basic science. Instead of asking why people persist in eating too much and exercising too little, the key questions of obesity research should address those factors (environmental, behavioral or otherwise) that lead to dysregulation of the homeostatic mechanism of energy regulation. There is a need for a multidisciplinary approach in the design of future weight-loss interventions in order to improve long-term weight-loss success.

Keywords:
Energy balance; obesity; public health; weight-loss intervention