A pivotal year in the fight against obesityby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Public health leaders say 2010 was a pivotal year in the fight against obesity.
The epidemic captured the national spotlight in February when First Lady Michele Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign - an effort to provide children with healthy food.
Even more resources were brought to the fight in the months that followed, as lawmakers passed a menu-labeling law and a student-meal package that gives schools more money to buy fruits and vegetables.
It's still too early to tell what impact these efforts will have on the nation's obesity rate - which has been stuck at 34 percent for the past five years.
But this year's momentum has health advocates more hopeful than they've been in awhile.
Dietitian Mary Story said she is feeling good about the progress that has been made in the fight against obesity.
Story, who is co-director of the Obesity Prevention Center at the University of Minnesota, is particularly pleased with the new national labeling law that will require chain restaurants to post calories on their menus or menu boards.
Americans consume about a third of their calories outside of the home, but Story says until now it has been very difficult to count those calories.
"If you're eating out you have no idea, unless you want to go to a website and try to look it up beforehand," she said.
Gains have also been made in combating childhood obesity. Recently, Congress re-authorized the Child Nutrition Act. The law, for the first time, allows the Food and Drug Administration to set nutrition standards for vending machines in schools.
The reauthorization also gives school meal programs an extra 6 cents per meal. Story says that's actually a huge increase that should improve the quality of school food substantially.
"Fruits and vegetables, whole grain products cost more," Gains said. "So it will actually give a federal reimbursement for meals."
But reining in the obesity epidemic will take a lot more effort than just these initiatives. Unhealthy foods are still cheap and plentiful in stores and homes. And studies show that most Americans are eating portion sizes that are way too large.
That lesson in portion size is something April Larson has learned the hard way.
"Portions are like the most important thing," she said.
Just last spring, when April was 9, a medical exam revealed that Larson had high cholesterol. That unexpected health scare prompted her parents to sign up the whole family for a 12-week weight management program at Park Nicollet Clinic.
It has resulted in big changes around the Larson household, including this healthy meal of chicken, potatoes and green beans.
"Usually for a snack I would grab, there would be a lot of chips around the house, and now we're getting it like barely ever to try to help," she said. "So it's really helping a lot."
Six months after the program ended, April had her cholesterol checked again. Her mother Angie was thrilled when she learned that her daughter's results were normal.
"Oh my gosh, when I got the news I was crying in the doctor's office. I was so excited. I was," Angie Larson said. "It paid off. It worked."
Of the 12 kids who completed the Park Nicollet program, five lost weight. Three, including April, maintained their weight. And four kids gained weight. Of the 7 kids who had abnormal laboratory results, 4 showed improvements by the end of the program, including April.
"I think that's fairly successful," said Dr. Betsy Schwartz, adding she had hoped to see progress for all of the kids in her program. She said she realizes that changing eating and exercise habits can be challenging.
"I think the best measure of success was that the satisfaction surveys showed that the families really felt that they had learned a lot about nutrition and increasing activity," she said.
We have heard a lot about obesity in the past year and more and more we are being exposed to information designed to help us make better food choices. But those messages are also colliding with round-the-clock advertising tempting us to consume unhealthy products.
Public health leaders are pursuing more ways to regulate the sale of unhealthy foods. But they acknowledge that they continue to be outspent in the food wars.
- Morning Edition, 12/29/2010, 6:20 a.m.