Public health and junk food

Public health and junk food

June 18th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Despite years of effort by public health, school leaders and private and government agencies to improve the nation's eating habits, the United States --especially many of its children -- is an increasingly unhealthy nation. Poor nutrition is so prevalent that it has prompted a staggering increase in life-altering conditions among many segments of the population. Many officials now agree that if eating habits don't change soon, today's youngest generation likely will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents and grandparents.

There are many culprits involved in the national slide from relatively good health to one in which in which the physical well-being of individuals is in decline. Two of the most identifiable are junk food and soft drinks -- the stuff that people of all ages ingest without a thought about the health consequences of such a diet. Such foods -- heavily laced with salt, sugar, preservatives and high in calories -- are inimical to good health if eaten regularly.

Unfortunately, Americans not only consume junk food regularly, they consume a lot of it when they do. Moderation, it seems, is not a word regularly associated with junk food.

Efforts to educate the public about the dangers of making junk food a regular part of one's diet have enjoyed some success, but additional programs to convince people to eat healthier foods and to exercise more are needed. For example, many states including Tennessee have approved legislation that limits the sale of both junk food and soft drinks in schools, especially at the elementary level. Well designed and implemented educational programs for all age groups have helped, too. So have regulations that require fast-food and other establishments to provide nutritional information about their offerings.

That's not enough. Tennessee, for example, still has an adult population that is among the most obese in the nation and that is at far higher risk for strokes than residents in most other states. Tennessee children fare little better. Obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates for youngsters regularly are among the highest in the country.

Truth is, it will take new programs in addition to the older ones that have had some success to win the war against junk food, poor nutrition and the habits that contribute to bad health. Some of that change will take time and money.

A return to community lifestyles where sidewalks, parks and playgrounds rather than sterile expanses of roadway to connect schools, homes and businesses would be a start. So would restoration of full-fledged physical education programs in schools and wider availability of free cooking and nutrition classes for all age groups. The initial investment would be high, but the payoff would be significant.

It will take cultural change as well. Thankfully, that seems to have started. Why else would The Walt Disney Co. announced plans to restrict junk food commercials on its TV programs for children? Or why would New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg take steps to restrict the sale of supersized sugary drinks in his city? The former won't start for a while and the latter likely will spur legal challenges, but the fact that both a major corporation and a big-city mayor have taken public stands against junk and sugary foods would seem to be sure signs that the battle to improve the nation's diet and health is entering a new and positive phase.

Even so, there's a long way to go. Current efforts are a skirmish in the larger campaign to improve the nation's health. The larger war to improve the nation's nutritional habits continues.