August 12, 2008 in Opinion

Breaking unhealthy habits a heavy task

 

What I want to know is who’s going to stop the young mother who takes her precious little 2-year-old into the 7-Eleven for breakfast, grabs a banana and a package of vanilla creme cookies and then hands her daughter a bag of Cheetos?

How is government going to regulate that?

You can ban certain food additives as nutritional pariahs. You can require that fast-food vendors strike fear in their customers’ hearts by reminding them how noxiously they’re eating. You can even outlaw TV ads that pitch yummy junk directly to kids.

But how do you counter the bad eating habits that parents teach by rote and example?

Lawmakers from coast to coast are trying to stop the blimping of America.

New York City health inspectors have started enforcing a requirement that restaurants post calories for food “in a font and format that is at least as prominent as the name or price of the menu item.”

The Los Angeles City Council has voted to put a one-year hold on any new fast-food places in 32 square miles in South L.A., with the goal of attracting more sit-down eateries with healthier offerings.

New York and the entire state of California now require restaurants to phase synthetic trans fats (which bump up bad cholesterol) out of their cooking.

But how much of a dent can the food police really make in the growing obesity of our society?

I’m skeptical not because of any kind of libertarian objection to forcing people into better habits – but because it’s so complicated to change behavior, even when it’s self-destructive.

I argued several years back that lawsuits against the fast-food industry had made an impact by pressuring companies to be more forthcoming about the ingredients they were serving – and getting rid of some of the worst additives.

And I fully support getting sugary sodas and junk food out of public school corridors, whether it’s a result of government restrictions or collective parental demands.

And I think that Federal Trade Commissioner Jon Leibowitz wasn’t out of line when he got on his soapbox this week and told food and beverage marketers that they should ramp back their appeals to kids or the next administration might be inclined to do it for them.

The FTC reported Tuesday that 44 companies spent $1.6 billion to promote their products to kids younger than 17 in 2006, largely through ubiquitous TV ads but also through toy tie-ins, movie-themed limited-edition foods, free ringtones and Webisodes.

Ads for carbonated sodas alone accounted for $492 million.

More than a dozen of the largest food and drink companies already have started limiting their child-targeted ads and developing healthier kid-friendly foods, but the agency recommended that they do even more.

And, of course, they should, both in the public interest and in their own interest in cultivating consumers who actually would choose the apple slices over the onion rings sometimes.

But even if we aren’t bombarded with ads and we know what we’re eating, where’s the incentive to go for the better-for-you items when it’s cheaper not to?

The crispy chicken sandwich at Wendy’s for 99 cents (330 calories/14 grams of fat) or the Mandarin Chicken Salad (180 calories/2 fat grams before dressing) for $4 more?

The $2.69 Chick-fil-A sandwich (410 calories/16 fat grams) or the chargrilled chicken sandwich (270 calories/3 fat grams) for $3.39, wheat bun 20 cents extra?

Slimming America is a collective, necessary project.

But let’s face it, until egg-white omelets are cheaper and tastier than doughnuts, it will remain a gargantuan challenge.

Linda P. Campbell is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her e-mail is lcampbell@star-telegram.com.


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