The Walt Disney Co. last week announced plans to restrict junk food commercials on its television programmes aimed at children. A few days earlier, mayor Michael Bloomberg took steps to restrict the sale of supersized sugary drinks in New York. But isolated changes may not make a substantial difference at a time when Americans are gaining weight as a nation. Reducing obesity will require a broader shift in culture.
For decades, people have treated obesity as a personal failure. They blame individuals and families for eating junk food and choosing television over exercise. But experts in this country and other industrialized nations are increasingly recognizing that obesity is caused mostly by social and environmental factors that limit people’s ability to eat healthy foods and get enough exercise.
The consensus of experts, in a report issued in May by the Institute of Medicine, part of the US’ National Academies, is that only a nationwide, prevention-oriented approach will work. It is especially important, some experts say, to start early and reduce obesity among children and adolescents. The institute’s report suggests a number of remedies that it believes have been proved to work. In Somerville, Massachusetts, where some 40% of the younger elementary schoolchildren were overweight, there was a community-wide effort to offer healthier lunches in schools and restaurants, encourage walking and other physical activity. Children there gained less weight than their peers in other communities.
In suggesting reductions in children’s exposure to junk-food marketing, the institute cites research showing a causal relationship between TV commercials and the food preferences of the very young. Other ideas are to increase physical activity in schools to an hour a day and strengthen obesity prevention programmes in the workplace. The institute says that a major cut in obesity rates will require multiple strategies on a population-wide scale. This will be even more challenging than the fight against smoking. But there isn’t any choice if we want to protect the public’s health, the strength of the economy and the government budget.
© 2012/The New York Times
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