America's Too Fat, Say Health Czars

Oust junk food from schools, exercise and more

THURSDAY, Dec. 13, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The country's top two health officials today called on citizens to declare war on obesity by requiring physical education in all school grades, reducing the availability of junk food in schools and encouraging exercise at workplaces.

In a 15-point plan, Surgeon General David Satcher also suggested that more women learn about the benefits of breast-feeding, which some research has found may prevent obesity in both mother and child. He also called on citizens to watch less television and engage in fewer "similar sedentary activities."

Some suggestions appear likely to cause controversy. Only one state, Illinois, requires physical education in grades K-12; other states allow older students to skip it. And on Wednesday, soft-drink makers launched a pre-emptive strike against a recommendation calling on elementary schools to eliminate vending machines that sell junk food.

According to news reports, the Bush Administration has largely ignored Satcher, who was appointed by former President Clinton. However, Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson agreed to appear with Satcher at a press conference today to launch the "Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity."

In 1999, more than six in 10 adult Americans were overweight or obese, according to federal estimates. Fourteen percent of teen-agers were overweight, nearly three times more than the percentage two decades ago.

Studies have shown that several groups are especially prone to put on extra pounds. They include white men, non-white women, lesbians and poor women.

Obesity contributes to many potentially fatal health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes, and experts think even a few extra pounds -- 10 or 20 in a person of average height -- could raise the risk of death, especially after age 30.

"Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," Satcher said in a prepared statement. "People tend to think of overweight and obesity as strictly a personal matter, but there is much that communities can and should do to address these problems."

In perhaps his most unusual recommendation, Satcher encouraged mothers to breast-feed, saying that breast-fed infants may be less overweight later in life. Also, women who breast-feed may return more quickly to a normal weight after pregnancy.

Deep in the heart of a lengthy report, Satcher said elementary schools should ban the sale of unhealthy foods in vending machines and school stores.

Under federal law, high schools and junior high schools already turn off junk-food vending machines during mealtimes. While the soft-drink industry supports that policy, it opposes restricting sales at elementary schools, even though junk food isn't often sold there in the first place.

Schools should make that decision locally, said Sean McBride, spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association. He said, "It's foolish for anyone to say that if we just eliminate soft drinks from our diet, the obesity epidemic is going to go away."

The soft-drink industry turned to previous statements by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) for support, pointing out that it opposes vilifying any particular food.

That's true, said ADA spokeswoman Jo Ann Hattner, but she added that junk-food manufacturers misinterpret the concept by leaving out a call for moderation in consumption of less-healthy foods.

"Every food fits [in a diet], but some fit in much lesser quantities than others," said Hattner, a nutritionist in San Francisco.

Another organization that advocates healthy eating goes even further. The Boston-based Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust supported the new federal recommendations but said they don't go far enough in condemning fast food and junk food.

The surgeon general should have said more about how so-called "low-fat" foods are actually loaded with calories and contribute to obesity, said Sara Baer-Sinnott, Oldways executive vice president.

Oldways is a prime supporter of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes grains, fruits and vegetables.

Unlike the ADA, Oldways believes in calling some foods "bad," Baer-Sinnott said. "Look at a Cheese Doodle. Is there some way that you could call a Cheese Doodle good?"

What To Do

Get out of your chair and get some exercise.

Read more on the surgeon general's new recommendations about obesity here.

Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust offers several food "pyramids" that offer alternatives to federal guidelines.

The ADA offers fact sheets on a variety of nutritional issues.

SOURCES: Interviews with Joan Ann Hattner, R.D., pediatric nutritionist, spokeswoman, ADA, Palo Alto, Calif.; Sean McBride, spokesman, National Soft Drink Association, Washington D.C; Sara Baer-Sinnott, executive vice president, Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, Boston; press release from office of Surgeon General David Satcher
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