Messages about the dangers of eating too much and exercising too little may have finally started to resonate with Americans.
Hopeful signs were cropping up throughout 2015: studies showed a decline in the number of new diabetes cases; sugary soda consumption dropped off; and Americans were actually starting to eat more healthfully.
It may be too soon to call it a trend, but still, all these findings may signal a change in the way we think about food and exercise.
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“It may be like the smoking cessation campaigns,” said Dr. Mark H. Schutta, G. Clayton Kyle Associate Professor of Diabetes and medical director of the Penn Rodebaugh Diabetes Center at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. “They really reduced the incidence of smoking in America. I think there is a greater awareness of the importance of eating in a nutritious manner and getting exercise. And I think many Americans are paying attention. But it’s a constant battle against the fast food industry.”
Speaking of smoking — the percentage of Americans who smoke cigarettes has plummeted 20 percent in the last 10 years and dropped a full percentage point in the last year alone.
Certainly the decline in sugary sodas’ popularity suggests that Americans are recognizing the importance of cutting foods that just pack on the calories. Between 2004 and 2014, Americans’ cut consumption of carbonated soft drinks by 14 percent, according to an analysis by Beverage Digest.
Perhaps even more important was a decline over a 10 year period in the amount of sugary beverages consumed by school-age children, which was reported in a study published in April in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But it isn’t just soda consumption that’s been changing. A study published in November in Health Affairs found that not only had Americans improved their diets overall, but also that these improvements likely prevented over a million premature deaths.
The researchers created a healthy eating scorecard, with a perfect rating set at 100. From 1999 to 2012, Americans went from a score of 39.9 to 48.2, said Dr. Frank Hu, a coauthor of the study and a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Far from perfect, but certainly an improvement, he said.
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And though those changes may seem minor, they had a big impact on health.
“We estimated that the improvements in dietary quality from 1999 to 2012 resulted in 8.6 percent fewer cardiovascular disease cases, 1.3 percent fewer cancer cases and 12.6 percent fewer type 2 diabetes cases,” Hu said.
Diabetes Is 'a Lifestyle Disease'
Those improvements in eating habits may also be helping with the nation’s diabetes epidemic. After steadily increasing for nearly a decade, the number of new diabetes cases began to decline from a high of 1.7 million in 2009. By 2014, the number of new cases had dropped to 1.4 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the numbers are still frighteningly high, they’re at least heading in the right direction.
While acknowledging the good news, Schutta said “we still have a major problem on our hands. We have roughly 90 million people who are pre diabetic.”
All of that can change if Americans truly become committed to living healthier lives, Schutta said, adding that diabetes “is a lifestyle disease. A good 95 percent of people have it because they are overweight, obese, or inactive.”
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The drop in new diabetes cases is a good sign, said Dr. Vicki March, director of the comprehensive weight loss program at Magee- Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “And there’s a possibility that obesity rates will fall, too,” since diabetes and obesity often go hand in hand, March said.
But, we’re still left with an enormous number of people who are overweight or obese, March said. And while there are reports that there has been an improvement in what people are eating, “we see in people’s food diaries few fruits and vegetables and lots of processed foods. People are still eating out a lot and they’re consuming fast food.”
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What everyone needs to understand is that few people can overcome obesity on their own, March said.
“It’s not merely a matter of will power,” she added. “This is a true medical condition. It’s multifactorial. It’s very complex. It isn’t just as simple as eating less and moving your body more. Your body has all sorts of compensatory systems to retain weight.”
March would like to see more obese Americans seeking medical supervision to help get their weight under control.
Despite the daunting numbers, it does look like Americans are inching in the right direction, Hu said.
“I do hope this trend will continue,” he added. “But we cannot get complacent. Continued efforts are needed to improve diet and lifestyle through public health campaigns, sound public policies and vigorous scientific research.”
And if we still need motivation to get healthy — a 2015 study from the University of Michigan found that people who are in good shape as young adults — mostly in their 20s — are much less likely to die in middle age.