Food Fight

New book details how people can beat obesity

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HealthDay Reporter

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

MONDAY, Sept. 1, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- If you think obesity isn't a problem in the United States, ponder these facts:

  • Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.
  • About 15 percent of American kids are overweight, and they're getting fatter at a faster rate than adults.
  • Fast food restaurants have expanded into hospital cafeterias and schools.
  • French fries constitute one-fourth of all vegetables in this country.

In fact, obesity is a bigger culprit than smoking in chronic illness and health-care costs.

Yet Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, has hope.

That may be because along with the myriad problems, Brownell has outlined a solution of sorts in his new book, Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It, written with Katherine Horgen.

"I'm not as pessimistic as it might seem. One of the reasons is that I take heart in what public advocates have accomplished in the past with tobacco," Brownell says. "Thirty years ago, you would have easily said the same thing about tobacco that you say about food now. It was entrenched around the world. It seemed impossible, but it worked."

Clearly, kids and adults are eating more than ever and exercising less. But don't let that distract you from the main problem, Brownell warns. In the book, Brownell refers to a "near-total surrender to a powerful food industry" as one of the main reasons behind the obesity epidemic.

Not surprisingly, members of the food industry decry these charges. "Kelly's recommendations on restricting advertising are quick fixes that, in the end, won't do much for anyone," says Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), the world's largest association of food, beverage and consumer product companies.

Instead, the industry says it is looking for ways to police itself while the GMA is encouraging members to become members of the Children's Advertising Review Unit, which reviews advertising and promotional materials directed at kids.

According to Childs, industry members have "stringent rules" in place for how products are portrayed in advertising. For instance, products need to be shown in the correct portion size and children need to be active while consuming them. A kid munching potato chips while channel surfing on the couch is not OK. A kid running and playing with the chips is. "You do need to be active to enjoy some of these treats," Childs says. "Some of the foods are treats."

Industry also says parents need to take a larger role. "Advertising is just one means of communicating to the public about a product and making people understand who the product is most appealing for," Childs says. "But what we've learned through research is that parents are the most important role model for kids for setting patterns and habits on eating."

But parents, pitted against huge food companies, are fighting a losing battle, Brownell counters.

"Let's say you ate every meal of the year with your child and every meal you delivered a very compelling nutrition message. That's 1,000 exposures for you for every meal of the year," Brownell says. "The problem is the food industry has 10,000 exposures on television alone because the average child sees 10,000 food advertisements every year. They have Madison Avenue doing these wonderful things with animation and cartoon characters and sports heroes, so who's going to win that one?"

He adds, "It's not a fair fight and we've handcuffed parents in raising healthy children."

Brownell doesn't want to talk about diets because, ultimately, diets don't work. He wants to talk about prevention. "You're never going to treat this problem with a diet," he says. "You've got to prevent it from occurring in the first place."

And because obesity is so hard to treat once it exists, programs have to start with children, and with the environment. "Important aspects of food preferences and physical activity get established in childhood. If kids can learn to do the healthy things and the environment encourages it, you may have a healthy person for life," Brownell says. "But the problem now is that the environment is so bad it makes it almost impossible for a parent to do a good job in raising a healthy child."

Where does that leave you? With a slew of recommendations from Brownell's book, among them:

  • Develop a national strategic plan to increase physical activity
  • Earmark transportation funding to increase activity with bike paths, walking paths, buses with bike racks
  • Protest to companies like Nickelodeon and Disney for offering up their characters to sell unhealthy foods
  • Encourage celebrities not to promote such foods
  • Prohibit marketing to children
  • Do not allow food company logos or advertisements on school property, including buses
  • Require food labeling at restaurants

Significant victories are already occurring, Brownell notes.

"Los Angeles and New York have plans to ban soft drinks in their schools," he says. "That's a huge accomplishment both because of the number of children affected but also because of the statement this makes. The school systems are saying we're no longer going to be beholden to the soft drink industry."

More Information

For more on obesity in children, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians or the U.S. Surgeon General. For more on kids and advertising, visit the Children's Advertising Review Unit.

SOURCES: Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, New Haven, Conn.; Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, D.C.; Food Fight

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