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Climate Change and San Martin

2014 June 13

Prezi on drought and deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon:

Redhook or Bushwick

2014 June 13

Prezi discussing the storm surge risks in Redhook and Bushwick:

Addressing the Global Obesity Epidemic: Collaboration is Key

2014 June 8

By Johanna N. Goetzel and Mark J. Harris

As part of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation conducted a systematic analysis of obesity rates from 1980-2013, showing a consistent upward trend worldwide. Underscoring the costs and health impacts of the obesity pandemic, the C3 Obesity policymaker survey 2014 provides data from 11 countries and indicates increasing awareness by policymakers about obesity.

These reports highlight an opportunity to focus efforts both in and outside government in order to support the World Health Organization’s goal of 25% relative reduction in the risk of premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 2025. The economic benefit is also clear: obesity alone currently accounts for 0.7-2.8% of total global healthcare expenditures, with medical costs of obese individuals typically 30% greater than that of their normal weight peers.

Key areas for improving health include increasing physical activity (insufficient exercise was noted by almost half of policymakers as having a ‘very strong impact’ on future risk of obesity) and improving access to healthy foods. Moreover, marketing of unhealthy food was recognized by 98% of policymakers as impacting the risk of obesity, with 28% saying it has a ‘very strong’ impact. Focusing on both individual action and environmental structures that can promote or hinder health is a way for government and industry to collaborate on program design and implementation for a common goal of healthier populations.

Concerted global action is needed to combat the rising tide of obesity around the world. The time is ripe: according the C3 report, over 2/3 of US policymakers believe that employers have a role to play in encouraging healthy lifestyles, hopefully paving the way for strong cross-sector collaborations across government, healthcare organizations, and employers to build healthier communities.

Population Rates of Overweight and Obesity by National Policy Status. Source data compiled from:

Johanna Goetzel is a policy analyst for the Vitality Institute. Mark J. Harris is a dual MD/MPH student at Columbia University. You can follow their thoughts on Twitter at @johannagoetzel and @MarkMDMPH, and the Vitality Institute at @VitalityInst.

Get Healthy for the Planet: World Environment Day 2014

2014 June 7

By Johanna Goetzel and Shahnaz Radjy

Today, June 5, is World Environment Day, an opportunity to connect the environment with health for a holistic approach to a more sustainable future for individuals, communities, and the planet.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched four celebrity-endorsed challenges (see image below) on this occasion, which we think connect beautifully to health goals – demonstrating once again the win-win opportunity of tackling health and environment related problems in collaboration.

To participate, you can…

  • Go Greener: come together as communities, supporting businesses that are committed to sustainability such as B-Corporations, who care about their environmental impact and the well-being of their workforce in addition to the bottom line
  • Purge Plastics: trade plastic bottles for water bottles with a filter, so you can be healthy and drink tap water (almost) anytime and anywhere
  • Power Down: walk or ride your bike to work to be more carbon friendly (the European Cyclist’s Federation ECF has calculated and compared the carbon dioxide emissions of cycling, driving a car, or taking the bus) and get your daily physical activity fix.
  • Reduce your Foodprint: reducing food waste can reduce land and water resources used unnecessarily for production, and doing so by favoring low-carbon options along with reducing portion size can help address the global obesity epidemic, too

There are a number of resources available to help make these changes, whether you want to endorse one of the above challenges, are a student (check out Harvard’s Planet Health Curriculum), or are part of your country’s government (read about the Milan Protocol).

In case that was not enough to convince you, did you know that it has been shown that improvements to the environment, even in small measure, have an exponential impact on health?

Stay tuned for more about health and environmental linkages – we’re just getting started.


– See more at:

Power down to power up: Screen-Free Week 2014

2014 June 4

May 5-11 is this year’s national Screen-Free Week, encouraging everyone to turn off digital entertainment and turn on life. At work, trends of increased sedentary behavior have proven negative health impacts but a screen-free philosophy can encourage regular breaks, improving your concentration and your health.

Since 1970, Americans work an additional 200 hours per year, translating to more hours in chairs and in front of screens. Both of these ‘risk factors’ contribute to the growing weight of the nation.

Dr. Wilmot, a research fellow at the University of Leicester, found that people with the highest sedentary behavior had a 112 per cent increase in their relative risk of developing diabetes; a 147 per cent increase in their risk for cardiovascular disease; and a 49 percent greater risk of dying prematurely — even if they regularly exercised.

According to research by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) employers incur large costs from their obese employees, between USD $644- 2,500, per person per year. Companies are now reevaluating metrics for financial success and worker productivity, investing in their office environments to promote health.

A fun way to take a break, for physical and mental well-being can be to follow the lead of Dr. Yancey, professor of health services at UCLA who advocates for group exercise breaks and a simple workout that can be done at work. Studies show that these can reduce sick leave and workers’ compensation claims. As an employer, investing in well-being leads to productivity increases, with absenteeism costs falling by about $2.37 for every dollar spent.

Power down to power up and take a moment to move away from screens this week.

Source: Washington Post Workout at Work Poster (

Top Questions in Nutrition (Part II)

2014 April 1

coauthored with Elle Alexander–

To wrap up Nutrition Awareness Month, here is the second half of this blog post, answering questions 6-10:

  1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?
  2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?
  3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?
  4. Is yogurt a health food?
  5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?
  6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?
  7. Where in the world does our food come from?
  8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?
  9. The other, other white meat?
  10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?

The WHO has warned that marketing fast food to kids has been “disastrously effective,” and has ultimately directly contributed to the global obesity epidemic. The American Academy of Pediatric recommends that children and teenagers never consume energy drinks, citing high levels of sugar and caffeine as unhealthy for children while providing no nutritional benefits. In spite of that, Yale University Rudd Center reports that 31% of American youth (age 12-17) consume energy drinks, many of which have on average more sugar than soda and are not required to disclose information on caffeine content.

7. Where in the world does our food come from?

Tracing our food items from production to consumption helps to understand where things really come from. Sourcemap visually displays the journey of products, with some examples having no less than 16 stopovers from source to shelf.

Where Tropicana Comes From (Source: SourceMap)

8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?

Brazil has introduced new food based countrywide guidelines, now open for comment, to promote health.  The rules they propose can be applied to the US and other countries:

  • Make foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals the basis of your diet.
  • Be sure oils, fats, sugar and salt are used in moderation in culinary preparations.
  • Limit the intake of ready-to-consumer products and avoid those that are ultra-processed.

9. The other, other white meat?

Fish are a tremendous source of protein and consumption is growing; to meet the demand in the US means importing 91% of the aquaculture. NOAA address questions about healthy eating and sustainability best practices. Concerns about health, safety and global ecology all come to play when eating fish and equally important is purchasing seafood from reliable sources. Greenpeace ranks retailers based on environmental practices.

10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

Food companies are shifting their portfolios to address the regulatory pressure and consumer interest in healthier items. Smaller portion sizes of classic items can be seen in stores and stealth strategies include product reformulation to reduce sodium or replace refined flour with whole grains, or developing ingredients to increase satiety and flavor without the calories (read more about these trends here). Interestingly, the Hudson Institute found that food and beverage companies with more sales of healthier products were more financially successful than companies with lower sales of healthier items.

When addressing these questions it is essential to consult credible sources, investigate credentials of authors, and recognize source bias.

A few of our current favorite places for nutrition updates are below – or just check back here for future posts on the subject!

Top Questions in Nutrition (Part I)

2014 March 11

coauthored with Elle Alexander–

March kicks off national nutrition awareness month, a great opportunity to feed our curiosity. With that in mind, we curated some of the top 10 questions around nutrition, and will share five now and five at the end of the month.

  1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?
  2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?  
  3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?
  4. Is yogurt a health food?
  5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?
  6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?
  7. Where in the world does our food come from?
  8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?
  9. The other, other white meat?
  10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?

There has been much discussion on high fructose corn syrup vs. cane sugar from health and environmental perspectives. Marion Nestle sheds some light on the debate:

“Sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain the same sugars—glucose and fructose—and do much the same things in the body.  I think everyone would be better off eating a lot less of either.”

2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?

When presented with numerous food choices, people tend to pile plates high with calories.   Choosing smaller plates helps to reduce calorie intake since people tend to stop eating based on visual cues rather than internal satiety cues.

See Brian Wansink’s “Bottomless Soup Bowl” Experiment:

3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?

In November of 2013, the FDA banned trans-fat, a decision that many – including the Scientific American – considered long overdue and with an impact of saving lives at a minimal cost to industry. Decisions to eat healthier are easier for consumers when information about health and a variety of healthy options are available.

Further work is also needed to reduce sodium intake in the US population, as only 5% of intake is added during cooking and 6% at the table; 75% is from packaged foods.  Companies must take the lead to reduce sodium in packaged foods for consumers while ensuring food safety and taste.

4. Is yogurt a health food?

For hundreds of years humans have consumed yogurt across cultures. The protein rich and bacteria filled product has experienced a renaissance of sorts since the 1900s and with the mass popularization of “Greek” yogurts. A New Yorker article in November documented the growth of Chobani; the recipe is modified for consumer enjoyment, including added sweeteners in many products. The benefits of yogurt include probiotics, calcium and a hearty dose of non-animal based protein.

5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?

According to the CDC, portion sizes have increased, impacting health. There are new devices on the market to help guide consumers toward eating ‘recommended’ quantities, including the Silo which pours 1 cup, 1/2 cup or 1 tsp. There is also a recent proposal to the FDA to make the Nutrition Facts label easier for consumers to understand, highlighting calories, recalibrating serving sizes and including added sugars:

Nutrition Label Redesign

Stay tuned for the next installment at the end of the month. Your thoughts are welcome!

– See more at:

Investing in Women: Farming for the Future

2014 March 10

Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum is an exceptional woman who advocates for connecting physical and psychological well-being as part of the global ethos for improved health.  The Vitality Institute is honored to count her as one of our Commissioners.

Rhonda’s heroic past, documented in her book, is only a shade more exciting than her work today as a farmer. Rhonda developed a love for farming early in life when she spent her summers on a family farm in Ohio. Today she grows nearly all of her own food in Paris, Kentucky, a practice she considers good for the body and environment. She believes that the closer food is to its natural state, the better it is, “if a product has more than five ingredients, it is not a real food.”

Agriculture is the single largest employer in the world. Rhonda is one of many female farmers worldwide, but in the minority of female land owners. Women farmers produce more than half of the food grown in the world, yet receive only about 5% of agriculture extension services and own about 2% of land worldwide. Closing the gender gap in agriculture will have economic benefits for world’s economic and food system. S. Ayyappan, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said “By failing to invest in women farmers we are handicapping ourselves in the quest for sustainable and more productive agriculture systems and more food-secure societies.” With this global sentiment and individual demonstration of resilience, we celebrate women farmers worldwide and thank them for their efforts in literally putting produce on our plates.

Rhonda considers herself privileged to have her own farm, and in her own words, she tries to be an example of how people can live.  On a final note, Rhonda offers the two rules that she lives by:

  1. The fact that you have made a mistake in the past is not a good reason to keep doing it.
  2. Don’t let other people’s expectations of you limit your own expectations of yourself.

Honoring resilience and inner strength, The Vitality Institute wishes a very happy (belated) International Women’s Day to all.

Navigating Nutrition in a Landscape of Excess

2014 February 17

Change is hard– especially behavior change in a context not designed to support it.  New Year’s resolutions, like those mentioned by Taubes in his New York Times Sunday Review piece, are usually forgotten. It isn’t just that they are ambitious. The problem is that we live in an environment where healthy choices are challenged by increasingly cheap, ubiquitous and tasty treats.

For example, twenty years ago, a typical cheeseburger contained 333 calories, compared to 590 today. According to a new FDA report pizza also accounts for 4% of all calories consumed by American adults daily. Additionally, our lifestyles are more sedentary–average Americans spend nearly nine hours in front of screens.

NavigatingNutrition Feb14 cdc-new-abnormal-infographic

Source: CDC, “Making Health Easier” (click image to enlarge)

Together, our diet and lack of physical activity put us at risk for lifestyle-related diseases, like hypertension, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Addressing these requires efforts from multiple sectors as health is affected by everything from policies set by governments, to products developed and marketed by companies, and corporate policies impacting employee health. The argument of ‘willpower’ falls away when powerful outside forces act in concert.  

We are more likely to consume more calories when we eat outside the home. According to the USDA in 2012, more than 40% of meals in America are eaten away from home and 82% of adults eat out at least once a week. Fundamentally changing the foods offered at restaurants can improve the food landscape and promote health. Efforts led by the Culinary Institute of America in partnership with Harvard’s School of Public Health are underway to develop Menus of Change. Consumers want more vegetable options, lean meats, and seafood, and Menus of Change is updating menus to give it to them.

A complementary initiative is Grow Your Family Strong, whose mission is to encourage mindful cooking at home by providing nutritious recipes, shopping lists and most importantly, support from other participants in building healthy meals for their families. Founder Monique Nadeau says “We need practical ideas that are simple to execute, automate and delegate; are value for money, nutritious and include meals our families will enjoy. I’m looking for something that makes my life easier and my family healthier.”

If making a change is hard, maintaining it is even more challenging. New technology, like Stickk can help individuals make ‘commitment contracts’ to a healthier lifestyle. Participants use the WebApp to publicize their commitments to quit smoking, eat healthier and exercise more frequently and then receive support from an online community. Building a community through health technology is an effective way to achieve personal goals.

Finally, addressing short-termism – where consumers tend to discount the future impacts of their decisions for immediate comfort or pleasure – can be built into polices and private sector commitment to health. For example, there is an opportunity to make healthier foods more affordable and accessible at point of sale. A few pilot programs, including Healthy Food Here, are making it easier (and cost effective) for retailers to provide fresh produce. Resolving to eat well and a landscape of support go together like (low-fat) milk and (wholegrain) cookies.

SNAP to Action on Health

2014 January 31

In President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this week, he commended the First Lady’s efforts to get Americans, and particularly children, moving.  The Let’s Move campaign combines getting active with healthy eating and is a great example of partnerships between the US government, NGOs, and industry.  Additional collaborations are needed to promote healthy eating in federally supported programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The Farm Bill was omitted from Tuesday night’s address despite being a key to the future of agriculture, food and health in America.

SNAP blog post 30jan14 - farm bill graph

Graph (click to enlarge) created by Brad Plumer, The Washington Post, January 28, 2014.

The majority of spending of the Farm Bill – nearly 80%, or $756 billion – is allocated to support nutrition and food security for low income Americans (see graph), although the funding does not explicitly support healthy eating or nutrition for recipients.   Improving the SNAP programs is an occasion for the US government to codify the link between agriculture production and healthy food consumption.

Importantly, shifts in diets could reduce the burden of disease and chronic disability which now account for nearly half of the US health burden.  Improving availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help replace high-calorie, highly processed foods with less energy intensive production.  It is also important to understand the relationship – or lack thereof – between subsidies and crop insurance support and retail costs of the healthiest foods

Land use for farming is not currently driven by health indicators. Harvard School of Public Health calculates that it required about 40 acres of farmland to produce 1,000 kilograms (approx. 2,200 pounds)  of ground beef while only 3/4 of an  acre to produce the same quantity of potatoes and even less — 1/16 of an acre to grow 1,000 kilograms of carrots.  The Farm Bill should support the production of more sustainable protein sources over energy intensive meat production. Further, by subsidizing fruits and vegetables instead of grain, corn and soy used predominantly for animal feed, the Farm Bill can be an effective lever to reduce the quantity of highly processed foods going to market and concurrently reduce the ecological footprint of the food system.

There is a tremendous opportunity to improve SNAP to help guide healthier food decisions.  Additionally, bolstering Michelle Obama’s efforts for healthier children, SNAP-Ed can complement the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program helping children form healthy habits early in life. The road ahead to reforming SNAP and revising the Farm Bill may by rocky, but shifts to promote health will benefit all and result from businesses, government, and local organizations supporting healthy and cost effective food choices promoting health.  Let’s get moving on this together.