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Losing Pounds by the Millions

Shira Isenberg

What does it look like when you try to put an entire city, state, or country on a diet? Check out these three major public health initiatives created to combat obesity and help people collectively lose millions of pounds.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

diet

We had built an incredible quality of life if you happened to be a car. But if you happened to be a person, you were combating the car seemingly at every turn.

Studies consistently show that if you team up with family or friends when you start a new diet and exercise regime to get rid of those cheesecake pounds, you’re more likely to lose weight — and keep it off. What if you upped the stakes? What if you teamed up with your entire block or your whole community? What does it look like when you try to put an entire city, state, or country on a diet? Check out these three major public health initiatives created to combat obesity and help people collectively lose millions of pounds.

Oklahoma City is a metropolis that began in 1889 when the federal government announced a land rush — settlers could race across the country and claim any free land as their own. In a mere few hours, the city’s population jumped from zero to 10,000. The shopping cart was invented in Oklahoma City, and it was also the location of the very first parking meter. And, about ten years ago, it was one of the nation’s fattest cities. 

That last fact came as a surprise to Mayor Mick Cornett, who happened upon that alarming stat as he was reading a magazine. As the embarrassing news about his constituents sunk in, he took a hard look at himself. Inputting his height and weight into an online BMI calculator, Cornett realized that he, too, was obese. He immediately made the decision to change his diet and increase his activity and with a steady weight loss of about a pound a week, successfully dropped 40 pounds. 

Mayor Cornett wasn’t content, however, to just improve his own health — he needed to do something about the rest of the city. It was his job, after all. The first step? Starting the conversation about obesity. Like himself, many people may not have realized they were obese or how dangerous that was for their health. He set up a challenge for his city: could the whole city together lose a million pounds? And on New Year’s Eve 2007, he announced, “This city is going on a diet.” 

With this ambitious announcement, Cornett accomplished his goal of generating buzz. People started talking about his initiative at home, in schools, in local businesses. Through the website Cornett created, Oklahoma City residents could register and learn important information about healthy weights, nutrition, and exercise. They could also continue to log in to update their progress towards their weight loss goals. 

Cornett understood that it would take a lot more than willpower to achieve that million-pound mark. He wanted to help his constituents revamp their diets. Over half of the city’s residents were hitting fast food places at least twice a week. Cornett didn’t want to go the route of taxing high-cal and high-fat foods to discourage patronizing the restaurants. Rather, he turned to the restaurants and fast food places themselves to update their menus to offer healthier options — and they were receptive. A couple places even named healthier options after Cornett. Fresh local produce and wholesome foods started becoming more widely available to residents through farmer’s markets and restaurants. 

Next, Cornett turned his attention to the city environment. “We had built an incredible quality of life if you happened to be a car,” Cornett relays in a TedMed talk. “But if you happened to be a person, you were combating the car seemingly at every turn.” A very sprawled-out city — its city limits span 620 square miles—Oklahoma City boasts practically no traffic congestion, making it easy for people to live very far away. “With no traffic they can go 15 miles in less than 15 minutes,” Mayor Cornett explains. This made the population extremely reliant on cars, contributing to their sedentary lifestyles. Compounding that problem was a gross lack of sidewalks — it wasn’t until recent years that developers were required to put sidewalks into new developments. 

Cornett got to work “designing the city around people, not cars,” in his words. He added a new, 70-acre central park downtown and put in hundreds of miles of new sidewalks across the city. Bike trails were put in and a downtown streetcar was added to make the city more walkable. The area along the Oklahoma River was an untapped resource. Cornett and his team built it up with beautiful trails and landscaping, and recreational facilities for rowing, canoeing, and kayaking. 

It took four years and over 50,000 participants, but Oklahoma City reached its goal of losing over a million pounds. Five years after reading about his city’s weight problem, Mayor Cornett went back to that very same magazine and found his city. This time, instead of being on the list of America’s fattest cities, it had moved to the list of the fittest cities.

State on a Diet

These days, the “obesity epidemic” is old news. Yet in the early 2000s, not everyone had seen the alarming stats released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — maps of the country showing the spread of obesity over the years like an ugly, darkening stain. 

Like the rest of the states, about two-thirds of Iowans were overweight; obesity rates had doubled in Iowa from 1990 to 2002. These statistics worried Tim Lane, a community health consultant at the Iowa Department of Public Health. He knew he had to take action.

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