Nurses on the Frontline in the Battle Against Obesity

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Patient on scale reading obeseAs crucial members of health teams who spend significant time with patients, nurses have a powerful role in fighting the obesity epidemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 38 percent of U.S. adults are considered obese, and panelists at the recent National Academy of Medicine meeting discussed the three-decade rise in obesity, noting more people worldwide are obese than underweight.

Multiple obesity awareness and health organizations, including the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, have joined to focus on the need for comprehensive approaches to combating obesity. In 2016, National Obesity Care Week is October 30 to November 5.

Individual care

In one-on-one care with patients, nurses provide health advice and directly help patients manage their disease. Nurses perform intake assessments and screenings like height and weight, and work closely with patients and their families to understand health status.

That work positions nurses to learn what factors may be influencing a patient’s struggles with obesity, including environmental, social and cultural choices related to health and nutrition, and to provide suggestions to affect obesity positively.

Interventions by nurses during primary health care have been shown to improve outcomes and affect positive change in a number of conditions related to obesity, like cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and weight.

To be successful, nurses should approach obesity as the sensitive and complex disease it is. Understanding a patient’s perception of what they can’t and can change is key, and nurses must “treat patients as the expert on his or her own body,” says Rita John, director of the pediatric nurse practitioner program at Columbia University School of Nursing.

Nurses have opportunities to make a difference during intake and screenings, and during consults in the care environment. Interweaving behavioral counseling during screenings is one effective method. Another is to make small-step suggestions, like minor dietary alterations, so the patient is likely to see incremental progress, and won’t feel overwhelmed or helpless at the thought of major changes.

Preventing obesity is a long game

Pediatric nurses have a special role in the obesity fight, since health and nutrition habits are established early — often by the time children enter elementary school. And heavy children have a greater likelihood of becoming overweight or obese.

One study by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics recently found that overweight kindergarteners were four times as likely as their peers to be obese by eighth grade. Changing a child’s habits and environment can be extremely difficult, and nurses must take the entire family and home and school environments into account to understand which areas to focus on. Things to consider:

  • The availability and convenience of healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables
  • The opportunities for physical activity
  • Institutional or environmental policies that may be creating additional context on the child’s health and nutrition

Agents of change

Nurses in roles directly tied to community health or public policy have a special ability to affect both pediatric and adult obesity, as choices they make can influence the health of entire populations.

  • Nurses in public health departments lead public education programs and can choose to include obesity prevention as a key part of their curricula.
  • School nurses can have significant influence on both an individual level, by working with students and their families to promote healthier lifestyles, and on a larger scale, by advising and advocating for healthier food options, and increased opportunity for physical activity in their school environments.

In both cases, nurses are likely to have a significant role in developing community programs that can help combat obesity.

Nurses in advocacy-related positions, like those working for governmental or policy lobbying groups, have enormous capacity to affect change.

They can directly influence how community health funds are allocated and involve their organizations in grant funding and other activities that can lead to obesity-fighting programs. They can especially affect policy that discourages childhood obesity, for example, by advocating for limits on the availability of unhealthy food in schools, or for ordinances that ban the use of trans fats in food chains.

Ready to make a difference? To start, take stock in the programs your workplace offers to directly address obesity, and make sure you advocate for them and any newly proposed ones. Think about your patients who may struggle with obesity, too, and what steps you can take to advocate for them. And to join the larger movement to raise awareness about obesity, check out National Obesity Care Week.

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