The theme for the 13th Annual Southern Obesity Summit is “Improving Systems to Promote Healthy People and Resilient Communities.” It sounds great, but what is it really all about? What’s different about this year?
The main difference is about “Improving Systems.” Almost 10 years ago, the National Academy of Science recognized the importance of taking a systems perspective to address the obesity epidemic. Since then there have been a number of books on systems approaches to health and obesity. The CDC and WHO have fostered learning about systems thinking. Some are advocating incorporating systems science in Healthy People 2030.
Just to be clear, this year’s SOS is not a systems thinking conference. It’s still about obesity prevention in the south. It will still have 16 state teams meeting to discuss coordinated regional action. Attendees from prior Summits should feel right at home in Oklahoma City.
However, our plenary sessions will offer opportunities to learn about obesity prevention through a systems thinking lens. This may be the first time many attendees will be exposed to systems thinking. Because systems approaches to obesity prevention involves collaboration across sectors and disciplines, we created tracks that align with the systems that drive the obesity epidemic. We’re increasing our outreach to maximize participation by nontraditional attendees such as prevention entrepreneurs.
While abstracts can focus on new tools, resources, or interventions, we are also interested in thought pieces and case studies that illustrate how systems phenomenon can thwart our best intentions. Stories that shed light on how to avoid delays and unintended consequences in designing and implementing obesity prevention interventions are especially welcome this year.
Texas Health Institute recommends this approach because of the urgency we see to reboot obesity prevention efforts in the US. Obesity is a global phenomenon, and it is important for practitioners who work locally to understand the national and global context of the systems that drive obesity—systems that often limit the effectiveness of their work. Moreover, as noted in a recent Lancet report, the obesity pandemic is driven by the same systems that drive under-nutrition and climate change, two other global phenomena. By tying these three pandemics as a “syndemic” the Lancet authors link the work of obesity prevention to the concerns of those working to address global hunger and climate change.
Obesity prevention needs all the allies it can get, especially since advocates are struggling to keep obesity at the top of policy makers’ agendas. Taking a systems approach to a global syndemic can strengthen our allies in the fight against obesity while improving our capacity to make a dent in a pandemic that no country has ever reversed. This year’s SOS is a baby step toward promoting a systems approach to obesity prevention at the regional level. We hope that some of the 400 attendees return to their states with a new vision and a stronger capacity to reverse obesity not just in the South, but in the world. SOS might be a baby step in that direction, but that is just enough for the US South to take the lead in a global epidemic.