Diets: Breaking an Obesogenic Society

The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Diets: Breaking an Obesogenic Society


Recognizing no simple course will suffice to suppress the swelling epidemic of overweight, specialists are cooking up extra large helpings of potential solutions. From politicians and policymakers to industrialists and investigators, a host of concerned interests has turned up the heat on the world's dangerously bloated beltline. Frustrated by the expanding expenditures required by the piling on of pounds, they are seeking ways to put the lid on lost lives and revenues.

Some 1.2 billion humans, including 129.6 million Americans, weigh too much. At last count, corpulence was overtaking tobacco as America's No. 1 preventable killer, claiming more than 400,000 lives--and gobbling up $117 billion in overall costs--each year.

"We have a society-wide problem, similar to that of tobacco, that must be addressed on a society-wide basis," said Nancy Amy, associate professor of nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley. "The food industry claims that eating is 'personal choice,' but that was the same argument that the tobacco industry used."

Of like mind, the authors of a report in the June 26 edition of the British Medical Journal have called for tackling the weight overload with global strategies similar to those dished out against tobacco.

"Potential international standards might cover issues such as marketing restrictions for unhealthy food products, restrictions on the advertising and availability of unhealthy products in schools, or potential price or tax measures to reduce the demand for unhealthy products," advised the team, led by Mickey Chopra, senior lecturer in public health at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

The purveyors of the fare under fire bristle at such suggestions, questioning the soundness of the science underlying them and the line that separates industry liability and personal responsibility. In any case, taxes will not decrease the desirability of tasty treats, only increase their price, they assert.

The public, too, overwhelmingly opposes government intrusion into private eating and exercising habits, with one poll showing 91 percent of Americans would oppose a tax on high-fat foods, while 84 percent would find levies on portions in restaurants hard to swallow.

Toiling to suit everyone's tastes, the world's leading health agency spent two years negotiating with nations and food industries before finally formulating the first global plan to fight obesity.

The nonbinding strategy, adopted by the governing body of the World Health Organization May 22 in Geneva, aims to make mincemeat of poor diet and exercise habits, considered risk factors in obesity, diabetes, some cancers, heart disorders, and other chronic diseases that account for 59 percent of the 56.5 million total deaths reported around the world annually.

The WHO blueprint for countries trying to develop weight-healthy policies includes recommendations to cut sugar, fat, and salt in processed food, discourage marketing that exploits children, substantiate claims on packaging and provide comprehensive nutrition labeling and education. The unprecedented plan also advocates spreading the health word at school, work, and home through such measures as subsidizing fruits and vegetables in student cafeterias and adding sidewalks and bike lanes to roads.

The European Congress on Obesity also has given a nod to a similar proposal designed specifically for that continent.

In view of the size and seriousness of the problem they propose to pulverize, the initiatives are expected to produce pressure belying their voluntary status.

Already some international industry giants, like McDonald's, have moved toward the bulge-battling bandwagon by slimming down their super-sized portions and expanding their health-conscious fare. Ruby Tuesday, a casual diner with 700 franchises around the world, has started revealing the caloric content of its offerings, the Applebee's restaurant chain has spruced up its menu with a host of nutritious selections, and Kraft Foods Inc. …

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