Community Conversations Café at 67th Street Library: Nutrition & Obesity
Authors: Alexander Mouyios & Lilian T. Lamech
On an upper floor of The New York Public Library-67th Street Branch, community members, scientists, and dietitians once again gathered together for a round table discussion on nutrition and obesity issues faced by our neighborhood. With a format that encourages open discussion where everyone’s voice can be heard, Community Conversations provided a valuable forum for discussing the links between obesity and cancer, the best approaches for a healthy lifestyle, as well as research looking into the genetics of obesity.
"My first experience participating in the Community Conversations was wonderful! I learned a lot about evidence-based nutritional guidance, and really appreciated the insightful and engaging discussion. Interacting with the community reminded me of why science is important, and allowed me to return to the bench with a renewed sense of commitment."
--Helen Kang, Scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
How much is enough? Serving sizes & your food
Over cups of hot coffee, light-hearted conversation on possible connections between caffeine and cancer opened the session. As it turned out, drinking coffee in moderate amounts (such as approximately 1-2 cups of coffee a day) can be beneficial as it contains antioxidants. Decaffeinated coffee, however, has less of these beneficial compounds and may not have the same helpful effects. Our community had many similar questions about how much of certain nutrients, such as saturated fats or sugar, is okay for our bodies to consume. A daily intake recommendation of 22 g of saturated fats and less than 12 teaspoons of sugar was suggested. This discussion brought to light an important community concern. Many food packages that indicate daily intake percentages are reported for someone on a 2000-calorie diet. This is actually not the amount that the average person burns daily and is likely more accurate for very active young adults or those with demanding physical jobs. Therefore, we were advised to keep this in mind when looking at nutritional information on food. The Mifflin-St Jeor calculator was recommended as one way of calculating your specific caloric needs.
Obesity’s links to cancer
At roundtables, pamphlets on the links between obesity and cancer, as well as wallet sized nutritional guides were distributed. Many of us were quite surprised with the number of different cancers that are linked to obesity and to learn that obesity is inching towards overtaking smoking as the # 1 preventable cause of cancer. Naturally, the conversation flowed towards the best ways to adopt healthier diets and behaviors that stick. Many of us touched on the difficulty of maintaining new changes in diet and exercise. Some very useful advice shared around the table was to make small changes towards clear goals that are meaningful to you. One method shared was to use SMART goals, which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. One reason mentioned for why people often relapse, is that the diet changes are too large or drastic to make it a sustainable habit.
Cultural influences & the balanced diet
A surprising and important point that came up was how cultural norms play a huge role in governing our eating habits. Everyone agreed that it’s important to understand where people come from and why they eat a particular diet. This is especially important to consider when people are trying to make changes to their habits. This led to a through conversation on what constitutes a ‘well-balanced’ diet, which was described as being largely plant based with adequate amounts of proteins and carbohydrates. The US government recommends that half of your plate contain fruits and vegetables. Legumes, beans, nuts and seeds are good protein sources for those looking for non-animal sources of protein.
Current nutrition & obesity research
Towards the end of the evening, topics began to veer towards current research in the field of obesity and nutrition. We touched upon how sugar affects the brain in a similar way to some drugs and how nutrition can affect how your genes make proteins. We discussed how not only genetics but your environment or behaviors can affect how your body metabolizes nutrients. This exciting area of research is looking at how diet and exercise can cause changes in epigenetic ‘marks’, which change how your genes are expressed in a way that doesn’t change the underlying DNA code.
“As an individual I found this to be a warm socializing event where completely different people sat down and opened up about personal thoughts, events, fears and this was a bonding experience for us all.”
--Maria Skamagki, Scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
As the conversations were brought to a close, many of us felt better informed and agreed that a major issue in our community is the lack of easy access to knowledge about nutrition and how best to change our habits for a healthier lifestyle. As day-to-day life is quite busy, forums such as Community Conversations where healthcare professionals, scientists and community members can share and discuss community issues and new findings, are quite valuable.
As our community recognizes difficult health issues that affect those around us, it is imperative that we are able to discuss important health-related matters in a neutral space. Join your peers and scientific/medical experts while we delve into topics such as Mental health & Aging (October 25), Obesity & Nutrition (November 16), and Depression & Anxiety (December 14).
These programs are meant to iron out fears, inform participants in a meaningful and constructive way, discuss current scientific endeavors in our community, shed light on the unknown, and dispel misinformation.
If you enjoyed this post consider attending a future event! Also, feel free to comment below on any topics you may want to see discussed at your local library!
Future Conversation Topics @ 67th Street Library
Thursday, December 14, 6:00 -7:30 PM *
*Doors close at 7pm