Stopping the obesity freight train

Research news
08 November 2011
Food for thought from Thinker in Residence, Professor Bob Jeffery

Professor Bob Jeffery was chuffed to receive his invitation from Deakin to be one of the University’s first Thinkers in Residence, but he had one small caveat before accepting.

“It’s something anyone would want to have on their CV, Thinker in Residence,” he said.

“But when David Crawford made the offer, I asked him if I could choose the months of my tenure.

“I come from Minnesota where there’s a lot of snow. 

“I wanted to escape that snow so I said I would like to start my four month stint in October.”

It was a condition readily accepted by Professor Crawford, the head of Deakin's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition research (CPAN), in order to expose his researchers to the wisdom and experience of one of America’s foremost experts in the battle against the obesity epidemic.

Professor Jeffery is regarded internationally as a leading authority in behavioural health research, particularly in relation to obesity. 

His work has been at the forefront of the field for the past 25 years. 

He has established a successful research centre; published more than 300 peer reviewed papers in high ranking international journals; been invited to provide high level advice to health authorities in the US and internationally and has attracted over US$25 million in grant funding in the past decade.

Professor Jeffery sees in CPAN something of his own centre.

“CPAN is headed up by David Crawford, whom I have known since he was a PhD student,” he said.

“When I first came to Australia he took the trouble to look me up and gave me some great openings in Sydney,

Newcastle and Canberra and we have been friends and colleagues ever since.

“He also came to America for a while and saw what we were doing with our centre and thought that something analogous could be set up in Australia.

“He seems to have done that very well.

“Deakin’s research in this area is now very well known around the world.

“David was one of the people instrumental in starting the International Society of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity and he is now the president of that organisation

“I am on the journal editorial board and I can tell you it’s a field that has just gone crazy.

“That is probably because the whole world has gone crazy in terms of overconsumption and under exercise.”

Professor Jeffery first became interested in the causes of and potential solutions to obesity in the 1970s.

“That was before the epidemic,” he said. 

“I got a job in a department of psychiatry to run an obesity treatment program.

“So I spent the better part of a year regularly seeing these people who were having an awful lot of trouble doing what seems like a pretty straight forward thing, eating less.

“That got me interested in the psychology of self control and how it works and why it is harder for some than others.

“It wasn’t until 10 years later that I began to realise that not only was this a problem for those people, but we in fact had a whole epidemic.

“In about 1980, we started looking at the data from surveys of body weight and suddenly the average gain went from a pound or two a decade to a pound or two a year.

“That speaks to the fact that rather than individual biological differences there were now a lot of cultural and environmental factors happening too.”

Try as Professor Jeffery and all his international colleagues might, changing those factors is a tough fight.

“Certainly there is a much wider awareness now of the issue, and its importance,” he said.

“There are a lot more programs getting started focussed on every segment of society.

“There are new standards for food advertising and excises and taxes on some food types.

“But there is no motivation in our food producing system to have people eat less.

“Yes, to eat less of someone else’s product, but not yours.

“So nothing is stopping the freight train just yet.

“And it is not just about stopping the freight train, we’ve got to push it a fair way back up the tracks!”

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Professor Bob Jeffery "It is not just about stopping the freight train, we've got to push it a fair way back up the tracks!" says Professor Bob Jeffery.

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