Thursday, May 10, 2001

Fat crisis prompts
some to blame
fast food for flab

Fatty food and little
exercise aids the birth
of a new Gen-XL

By Helen Altonn

An obesity epidemic in Hawaii and across the mainland calls for bold action similar to that used to fight the tobacco industry, says an internationally known specialist on eating disorders and obesity.

"It is absolutely astounding what we're allowing to happen to our children," said Kelly Brownell of Yale University, describing the nation's "toxic food environment" at a conference yesterday on Childhood Obesity in Hawaii at the East-West Center.

A professor of psychology, epidemiology and public health and director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, Brownell said the food industry "has run amok."

Poor nutritional foods are inexpensive and available everywhere, including "places where you never thought you could eat," such as gas stations, he said.

They are also offered in "supersize" portions -- what McDonald's calls Super Value Meals, he said. "Our children are being taught that more is better."

French fries make up one-fourth of all vegetables eaten in the United States, he said.

Advertising for healthy foods vs. that for fast foods and soft drinks "is a drop against a tidal wave," Brownell said.

For example, McDonald's spends $1.1 billion annually on marketing and Coca-Cola spends $866 million while the National Cancer Institute's budget to promote healthy eating is $1 million, he said.

"We've let one industry (food) escape scrutiny and the other (tobacco) not," he said.

Brownell suggests actions to make physical activity more accessible, regulate TV fast-food ads aimed at children, ban fast foods and soft drinks from schools, restructure school lunch programs, subsidize healthy foods at a national level and, if money is needed to do those things, "tax bad foods."

Kwok-Wai Ho, retired chairman of the University of Hawaii Kinesiology and Leisure Science Department, and Dennis Chai, associate professor in the department, found in a study of one Hawaii community that children were twice as fat as children their age on the mainland.

Chai, co-director of the Hawaii Youth Sport and Fitness Program within his department, said the researchers thought Hawaii kids would be comparable to the mainland's.

Virginia Pressler is state Health Department deputy director for health resources administration. She pointed out that obese children have a 70 percent to 80 percent chance of being overweight adults.

It is not just a matter of appearance, but of increased risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and other diseases as well as mental health, she said. "We're seeing problems in younger and younger people."

The Health Department's Healthy Hawaii Initiative is working with the Department of Education to improve school meals, physical education standards and physical activities, Pressler said.

Many playgrounds are closed because of unsafe equipment, she said, urging people to get involved to make sure children have safe places to play.

Brownell said his clinic treats people every day for obesity, but treatment will not make a dent in the growing problem of an obese population. "There are no miracles on the horizon."

Coupled with poor diets is reduced physical activity because of energy-saving devices, automobiles, elevators, escalators and computers, he said.

Participation in physical education classes in schools dropped to 25 percent from 42 percent from 1991 to 1995, he said.

More than 5,000 schools in the United States have fast-food outlets in their cafeterias, and most schools serve their own fast-food versions, he said. Schools also are signing contracts with soft-drink companies to sell only their products, he said.

Dan Yahata, educational specialist for health and physical education in the Department of Education, said some Hawaii schools offer sodas in vending machines. But a recent trend is to provide juice, water and milk, he said.

Yahata said 90 minutes of physical education per week is required in elementary school, and one year of P.E. is required in the middle and high schools.

He said the Department of Education is looking at ways to improve health and physical education. "This is our first big step, focusing attention on the problem."

In trying to help children, care must be taken to avoid harming them, cautioned Karen Petersmarck, public health consultant in the Michigan Department of Community Health. She has worked with a Michigan advisory group of 30 agencies to define schools' role in promoting healthy weight in children.

Brownell, Petersmarck and other specialists who addressed yesterday's conference met in a brainstorming session today with UH, state and medical officials.

"Nationwide, we know we have a problem," Chai said. "Bottom line: What are we going to do about it?"

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