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Editorial: Obesity problem still needs solutions

A state appeals court has tossed New York City’s ban on the sale of 32-ounce sodas, saying the Board of Health overstepped by supersizing its legal authority.

That’s the best outcome for this particular idea because the brainchild of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been so routinely ridiculed that it would never gain acceptance anywhere else.

However, the very real problem of obesity still needs solutions. Adults are packing on the pounds and so are children. If the trend continues, the current generation of kids will have a shorter lifespan than their parents. The American Medical Association recently recognized obesity as a disease. That decision is controversial, but it does serve to highlight the threat, and perhaps physicians will take the problem more seriously.

Beyond the technical arguments of the best measurement for “obesity,” there’s no question that Americans are gaining weight, and the trend is producing more people with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. That’s a problem for everybody because it drives up health care costs in a nation that already has the world’s most expensive system.

Meanwhile, Twinkies and Ho-Hos are flying off the shelves since the Hostess brand products returned. This pent-up demand does not bode well for a nation in which 70 percent of the people are overweight. In the past 30 years, the obesity rate has doubled for children and tripled for adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The solution isn’t easy because the cause is wrapped in thorny issues such as poverty, culture and education. As with smoking, low income and low educational levels are key indicators for obesity. Unlike smoking, in-your-face education campaigns could make the problem worse. For one thing, they treat all overweight people the same, but research shows that some are as healthy as thin people. If they have better exercise habits, they could be even healthier. Plus, the shaming itself can trigger depression, which can lead to eating as a relief.

Sadly, ridiculing fat people is broadly accepted, but it’s obviously not working. The key is targeting unhealthy behaviors and providing alternatives and support. Subtle coercion – as opposed to wholesale bans on large sodas – can also help. For instance, listing caloric content on menus and providing weight-loss incentives in health plans.

As for children, schools should provide healthy options and remove sugary products from the premises. The Empire Health Foundation has financed a project in which some rural Eastern Washington school districts have ditched processed lunches and brought real food into their kitchens. The food preparers learn valuable cooking skills, and the students get healthier meals.

Recess and physical education are also important because public health guidelines suggest 60 minutes of physical activity for at least five days a week. That’s a tougher challenge in an age of video games and other electronic lures.

So as we say goodbye to New York City’s large-soda ban, let’s not forget that a growing problem still remains.

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