As reported by the New Haven Register, July 2, 2006.

Too Much Fat, But Tide May Be Turning

By Abram Katz

Americans are literally eating themselves to death on diets larded with fat and sugar, but the country seems to be tipping slightly toward healthier foods, nutritionists and diet experts said.

How to keep the wholesome trend going is the weighty question now.
Legislation, education, legal action, consumer pressure and a major change in tastes, will all be parts of the strategy, they said.

"It took years and years to get the public and government interested in obesity," said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

"There’s lots of activity now, but we need to figure out what works best and how to proceed. Right now, that involves guesswork. We don’t know what would work best," Brownell said.

Sugar-laden soda is now off-limits in Connecticut public schools under a new state law, KFC is being sued for frying its chicken in harmful trans-fats, and heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali recently introduced a line of lower calorie snacks.

Public health experts now face the daunting task of changing deeply ingrained eating habits, jarring national complacency and expanding the nascent realization that living on fries, pies, doughnuts, hamburgers, pizza, potato chips and soda is a formula for disaster.

"Public awareness of this issue is really starting to come around. This is a beginning, not an end. People are beginning to pay attention to what a problem it is," said Margaret Grey, dean of the Yale University School of Nursing.

But how can the 130 million overweight adults in the United States be reached, re-educated, and reformed? And what about the 15 percent of children and adolescents already lugging around extra pounds?

Action must be taken because at the rate that weight is rising, by 2025 half of the U.S. population will have diabetes. Kids as young as 5 are already developing diabetes, which can lead to blindness, kidney disease, peripheral nerve damage and loss of limbs, Grey said.

Many of today’s youngsters are on the greasy road to heart attacks and strokes before they graduate from college, she said.

That’s catching people’s attention.

"I think people are already becoming aware. Now there is acknowledgement that obesity is a health care issue," said Dr. Cynthia Hodge, associate dean of the community and outreach program at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

"Somebody will have to pay for the health care. Someone has to pay. There’s no free lunch, no pun intended," she said.

Add up the costs of obesity-related heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, gallbladder disease and cancer, and the total comes to about $120 billion a year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Hodge said American eating habits have become a public health issue, calling for government intervention.

"Food consumption is like water consumption. The government makes sure water is safe. If we concretely knew what causes cancer there would be a speedy move on the part of the federal government to restrict access," Hodge said.

Perhaps certain ingredients should be banned, or children should not have access to sugary drinks without parental consent, she said.

"There has to be a threshold reached to create enough discomfort to make the state and federal governments act," Hodge said. However, legislation has to be thought out carefully, she said.

Taxing "bad" food would hit low-income neighborhoods especially hard, she said. The less affluent are not gluttons for junk food, but they may have no choice.

"It’s much more difficult to find fruits and vegetables in low-income areas," Hodge said.

The price disparity between high-sugar foods and healthier produce is a consequence of subsidies to corn farmers, Brownell said. Strong political forces work to keep this complicated status quo, he said.

Subsidies result in a bounty of corn, which is a source of inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup. Corn is also used to feed farm animals, he said.

"The government is helping you buy soda and hamburgers, but it’s not helping you buy salad. There should be subsidies for healthy foods," Brownell said.

Meanwhile, food companies can remove trans-fats from their products, he said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed suit last month against YUM! Brands Inc., the parent company of KFC, for frying food in oil containing high amounts of trans-fats, which raises levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and reduces high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the "good" cholesterol.)

The center is also taking aim at Starbucks for its 20-ounce venti banana mocha frappuccino with whipped cream, which packs 720 calories. That’s enough to make fast-food hamburgers look healthy.

Frito-Lay, which makes a variety of fried snacks, voluntarily stopped using oil containing trans-fats, Brownell said. "KFC could have done the same thing. They chose not to," he said.

Nutrition should be taught in schools, which should be havens from high-fat, salt, and sugar snacks, Brownell said.

Brownell said the Rudd center is preparing to evaluate all of these approaches. "The strategy is to use the best science available to see the best place to intervene," he said.

As difficult as it is to imagine giving up the fried, salty, sweet and otherwise high-fat foods we love so much, it is possible, said Marlene B. Schwartz, director of research at the Rudd center.

"We’d like to think that we control what we eat, but research shows that we’re highly influenced by culture, trends and marketing. American tastes have changed greatly," she said.

Thai and Indian foods have become popular, showing that people can learn to appreciate other cuisines, she said. "People can change their food preferences. People will always like fat, salt and sugar. We can broaden our tastes," Schwartz said.

"These kinds of lifestyle changes are very difficult," Grey said. "Over time, as better choices are available, people will get used to them," she said.

Twenty years ago no one imagined that cigarettes would be banned in public buildings, restaurants and bars, and before that, cigarette ads seemed like an eternal fixture on television, she said.

"I think we’re going to get to the same place with obesity and diabetes. Public awareness of this issue is really starting to come around," Grey said.