Thought leaders in the field of health care, obesity, and nutrition met Thursday morning at the Washington Ideas Forum to discuss issues underlying America's obesity epidemic.

Listen to the session here:

Participants included:

Raj Anand, Executive Director, USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

Pamela G. Bailey, President and Chief Executive Officer Grocery Manufacturers Association

David Barber, Co-Owner, Blue Hill Restaurant

Nancy Brown, Chief Executive Officer, American Heart Association

Shannon Brownlee, Senior Research Fellow, Economic Growth Program, New America Foundation

Lawrence Cheskin, Director, Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center

Seth Goldman, TeaEO, Honest Tea

Gary Gottlieb, President and Chief Executive Officer, Partners HealthCare

George Halvorson, Chief Executive Officer, Kaiser Permanente

Darell Hammond, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, KaBOOM!

Dan Jaffe, Executive Vice President for Government Relations, Association of National Advertisers

Elaine Kolish, Vice President and Director of Children's Food and Beverage Advertising, Better Business Bureau

Brendan McCormick, Vice President, Corporate Communications, Altria Client Services

Edward Miller, Chief Executive Officer, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Tomas J. Philipson, Daniel Levin Chair of Public Policy and Economics, The University of Chicago

Lynne Vaughan, Chief Innovation Officer, YMCA of the USA

Ellen-Marie Whelan, Associate Director of Health Policy and Senior Health Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress

David Williams, Florence and Laura Norman Professor of Public Health and of African and African American Studies, Harvard School of Public Health

The Conversation:

The session began with a discussion over the recently failed reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act--a product of budget cuts. Participants identified societal factors influencing America's weight problem, focusing on health education, lifestyle choices, and availability of quality food. The group consensus was that some Americans are so lacking in basic knowledge of nutrition and health that they often do not know that they are unhealthy.

"Families think they need a treadmill and an aerobics instructor to exercise."
--Lynne Vaughn, Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Vice President, YMCA

According to participants, a majority of Americans do not get enough exercise, and their sedentary lifestyle is a major cause of epidemic obesity. Part of the problem, said discussant, is a lack of facilities like biking paths and public parks that would make exercise a daily habit.

"Food manufacturers don't care if they make money off of healthy or unhealthy foods. They will sell healthy foods if people will buy them. People aren't willing to pay the premium. If people were willing to pay the premium [for healthy foods] you'd see a lot more entry into the health food market."
--Tomas Philipson, Daniel Levin Professor of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Perhaps as importantly, unhealthy foods are widely available, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, and fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive or hard to find in some neighborhoods. Panelists asked: how can Americans eat well when they can't find produce on their neighborhood stores' shelves?

While participants mostly attributed epidemic obesity to social and environmental factors, they were not entirely dismissive of individual choice. Several participants agreed that responsibility for lowering obesity rates should be shouldered by both public and private institutions. A partnership between the two sectors will lead to more significant, long-term results, according to discussants.

One proposed solution to the national obesity problem focused on changing behavior at the K-12 level, particularly with educational programs emphasizing a good diet and physical education.

A "back to the soil" theme emerged in the conversation: several participants agreed that exposing children to agriculture and animal farming will lead to better eating habits throughout adult life. Field trips to working farms might better Americans' understanding of the foods we eat and improve eating habits. Another interesting suggestion involved pairing local farmers with big grocery stores.  For example, a case study revealed people bought more produce from the grocery store when the store hosted a farmer's market in the parking lot.

"Walking is the sweet spot. We've got to focus on walking."
-- George Halvorson, Chief Executive Officer, Kaiser Permanente

Additional solutions focused on urban planning and civic leadership: by planning and building better cities, we can lead healthier lives. This might include building sidewalks and sponsoring community activities that encourage citizens to engage in healthy activities as simple as walking more.

Five Big Ideas from our Health and Weight Experts:

   1. Many Americans don't understand what it means to be healthy or to follow a nutritious diet plan or exercise habits. School programs are one possible solution to the problem.

   2. Exposing children to agriculture and food production could encourage healthy eating habits.

   3. Americans need better access to healthy foods, both in schools and in grocery stores.

   4. The responsibility for eliminating obesity falls to individuals and public and private institutions.

   5. Simple city planning efforts can go a long way in improving health--more sidewalks and parks, for example.