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Group Uses Nutrition Policy to Fight Obesity and Improve Public Health

On the surface, eating healthy is largely a matter of common sense. More lean meats, fewer cheeseburgers. More water, less soda. More cooking at home, less eating out.


Simple, right?


Not so much.


According to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington D.C., Americans live in a junk-food, couch-potato culture where it's much easier to eat poorly and be inactive than it is to live a healthy, active lifestyle. All one has to do is look at the children's menu at nearly any restaurant for evidence - burgers, French fries and soda are the norm.


"It's not that it's not possible to eat well," she said. "But it's just a lot harder. The default choices are usually unhealthy choices. Healthy eating and maintaining a healthy weight is like swimming upstream."


Wootan's goal is improving public health by making it easier for Americans to make healthy choices. She presented some strategies at a seminar, "It Takes More than Willpower: Supporting Americans' Efforts to Eat Well and Watch Their Weight."


The lecture, held April 5 at the Health Sciences Learning Center, was presented by the Department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and co-sponsored by the UW Population Health Institute.


School Nutrition is a Major Focus


Wootan advocates for programs and policies such as requiring restaurants to disclose the calorie content of their menus, taxing soft drinks, changing the way food is marketed to children, and improving school lunch menus.


In 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest compiled a State School Foods Report Card, which analyzed policies for foods sold outside of meals, such as vending machines, school stores and a la carte menus. Wisconsin was one of 20 states to receive a grade of "F." Only 23 states plus the District of Columbia earned grades of "C minus" or above.


Wootan said Wisconsin was given a failing grade because it doesn't have statewide standards for school nutrition, relying instead on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, which don't have limits on calories, fats, sodium or added sugars.


In addition, the standards are limited only to school cafeteria foods, meaning soda, candy bars and other junk foods can be sold in a vending machine in a hallway, for example.


The center is working to re-introduce the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009, which would amend the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 to update the USDA standards.


"I think, hopefully, this will be the year that we're finally able to pass legislation to get junk food out of schools," Wootan said.


Soda Tax Could Help Improve Public Health


According to Wootan, since there are taxes on tobacco, it stands to reason that there should also be taxes on soft drinks.


She noted that soft drinks are Americans' No. 1 source of calories, yet most provide no nutritional value and have been linked to obesity.


According to Center for Science in the Public Interest statistics, a nationwide one-cent tax per 12-oz. soft drink could raise $1.5 billion annually. In Wisconsin, a two-cent tax per 12-oz. soft drink could lead to $56 million in revenue per year.


These funds could be used for walking trails, recreational facilities, physical education initiatives or school lunch programs.


Wootan acknowledged that, although 25 states already have soft-drink taxes, the idea is controversial. She has a simple response to the opposition: Give it time.


"Packaged-food labeling only passed in 1990. It only went into effect in 1994," she said. "It hasn't been that long since we've had nutrition labeling on packaged foods. Now people think, 'Of course we have it.' But it took us 10 years to pass that bill."

Date Published: 04/16/2010

News tag(s):  obesitypublic health

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