In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Oregon Research Institute recently hosted a public lecture – “Addressing the Nation’s Crisis with Nutrition and Obesity” – by Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. In the past several years, obesity prevention has gained enough traction to be a well-established national health priority. Public and private funders are actively looking for solutions to cut down on the enormous and growing costs of addressing the innumerable diseases and suffering associated with and exacerbated by obesity.
Curious to see if breastfeeding would figure into the lecture, I attended…
What’s the connection between obesity reduction and breastfeeding? Breastfed children experience lower rates of obesity than do formula-fed babies. Why? “Scientists do not know exactly why… Some people think that a breastfed child can better control how much he or she eats and so may become accustomed to eating less than a bottle-fed child… Also, babies who are breastfed have lower levels of insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage.”
Because breastfeeding is associated with better outcomes, it, too, is enjoying newfound traction in policymaking circles. Oregon’s one-a-kind insurance collaborative – Oregon Health Insurers Partnering for Prevention (OHIPP) – selected breastfeeding as its first intervention intended to reduce obesity. Nationally, Michelle Obama promotes breastfeeding as part her campaign to reduce childhood obesity.
A well-known recent study reports that 911 deaths, mostly among infants, could be averted and $13 billion per year saved, if 90% of US family could follow medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for six months. Nine in 10 Oregonian women initiate breastfeeding. This number declines rapidly so that at six months, 2 in 10 babies are exclusively breastfed.
After establishing obesity as a global epidemic of the first order, Kelly focused his lecture on reduction and prevention in the United States through meaningfully addressing the manufacture and sale of the foods and beverages fueling today’s ghastly health outcomes. Breastfeeding was not discussed. However, the ideas and suggested pathways to obesity reduction that Kelly sketched out are well suited to the development of strategies for reforming the inadequate breastfeeding support models currently accessible to most women and babies here in Lane County and elsewhere.
…reform comes when the environment in which individual choices are made is geared to support rather than thwart decisions that align with healthy, positive outcomes…
Reform: Clean Up for Infant Feeding Models
Brownell argues that real reform comes when the environment in which individual choices are made is geared to support rather than thwart decisions that align with healthy, positive outcomes. Currently, models to promote well-being, whether for nutrition or infant feeding, exist within an environment that encourages behaviors associated with poor outcomes. Today’s decision-making environment for infant feeding is shaped by legislation, regulation and economic prerogatives that promote and protect the interests of manufacturers and non-evidence-based practices at the expense of individual, family and community wellbeing. The current “default settings,” as Kelly refers to them, run counter to science, transparency and good health practices.
In this kind of “toxic” decision-making environment, Brownell describes the disproportionate responsibility individuals bear in becoming educated and motivated to identify evidence-based or effective care and accessing it. Current default settings put consumers at so great and extreme a disadvantage in making informed decisions that it is unreasonable to expect improved outcomes to result from individual responsibility alone. In other words, individuals are “thrown to the wolves” and then summarily blamed for making the wrong decision – all in the name of personal responsibility.
What is needed to address an asymmetrical and toxic decision-making environment? The default settings must be reset to optimize individual decision making and public well-being. Legislation, regulation and economic practice must be redirected to protect and reward practices that promote rather than undermine individual and national health and economic well-being.
Anyone following funding for Women, Infants and Children can see the power of formula company interest groups on full display. Through costly and effective lobbying campaigns, these companies succeed in shaping national policy for their own benefit and at an extraordinarily high cost to everyone else. These companies create the toxic environment in which WIC is cornered into purchasing and providing formula rather than evidence-based infant feeding support systems. To think the nation’s most vulnerable women and children bear responsibility for allowing this to happen is ludicrous.
Shifting a decision-making environment to empower choices in line with good health and economic outcomes is not a new idea. Before obesity reduction and breastfeeding promotion managed to make it onto the national agenda, other examples abound in which default settings have been positively reset. Smoking cessation and tobacco regulation is just one, good and well-known example. Another example? Air bags. All new cars now come equipped with them but this wasn’t always so. Having one or not is not a private but a public decision. This idea is so firmly supported by legislation and regulation that buying a new car without one is impossible.
Improvement looks like…
What if default settings for infant feeding were optimized to serve the nutritional and economic interests of women, babies, families and communities? Here are few ideas for what a non-toxic environment would look like….
- Evidence-based breastfeeding models of care in hospitals and birth centers
- Higher reimbursement rates for evidence-based facilities and providers
- Universal access to early and comprehensive prenatal care
- Access to evidence-based childbirth and breastfeeding education as part of prenatal care
- Effective employer-based supports systems to support breastfeeding mothers
In Lane County, there are positive signs of increased access to evidence-based breastfeeding models. Sacred Heart Medical Center is pursuing the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative designation for evidence-based care. McKenzie Willamette Medical Center reports being in the midst of internal discussions about a similar commitment to mothers and babies in our community. The PeaceHealth Nurse Midwifery Birth Center is already one of Oregon’s five designated facilities. See what women who access breastfeeding care have to say about Baby Friendly care – read A Consumer Survey on Baby Friendly Breastfeeding Services.