obesity in US
Tectonic shifts occurred this month on the nutritional landscape. From new scientific research and pop-culture movie documentaries to restaurant menu offerings and congressional legislation, obesity concerns weighed in heavily.
Those titanic movements, in the wake of growing evidence that Americans are becoming as big as whales, are welcome and serve as harbingers that the restaurant industry is doing its part to broadcast a healthful message.
Chief among the developments was McDonald's Corp.'s decision to phase out its popular Super Size fries and drinks in its domestic restaurants, which the company said was an effort to simplify its menu and give customers choices "for a balanced lifestyle." Last year McDonald's added entree salads to its menu and provided fruit, vegetable and yogurt options with its Happy Meals.
McDonald's, because of its sheer size, with more than 13,000 restaurants nationwide, has been a large target, although two attempted class-action lawsuits against it, alleging liability for obesity-related illnesses, either were dropped or were thrown out of court.
In May the company will be a target once again with the general release of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" documentary, which won a directing prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
That movie chronicles Spurlock's personal odyssey of eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days and gaining 24 pounds and 65 points in cholesterol. "My film is about corporate responsibility and individual responsibility," Spurlock said. "The company says it's doing its part. Now people have to do their part. People who go to these stores need to realize what they're putting into their mouths."
Indeed, McDonald's is doing its part. The Super Size option will be phased out by year-end, and its 42-ounce-drink component will be available only during some promotions.
Meanwhile, the government is adding more fat to the fire.
New data indicate that obesity is closing in on tobacco as the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Statistics compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that poor diet and physical inactivity accounted for about 400,000 deaths in the United States in 2000. That was about 17 percent of all deaths and an increase of 100,000 in such deaths over the 1990 figure. Tobacco use resulted in 435,000 deaths in 2000, the CDC said.
The agency also said that about 129.6 million Americans, or 64 percent of the adult population, are overweight, and about 31 percent are considered obese. "This is a call to action," CDC director Julie Gerberding said. "We've got to step up and scale up programs to deal with this issue."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson unveiled the government's edgy public-service ad campaign featuring love handles and blubbery bellies discarded by people who have started to eat right and get in shape.
Similarly, the Ad Council, the nonprofit 2group behind such campaigns as Smokey the Bear and forest fires, has focused on individuals taking personal responsibility for their own health and weight.
On the legislative front the U.S. House of Representatives voted this month for a bill that would stop lawyers from pinning the blame for America's obesity crisis on fast-food and other restaurants.
Fast-food franchises and restaurants shouldn't be blamed for bad food choices, supporters of the legislation said.
"Americans are eating themselves to death and looking for someone to blame," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. And the White House, in a statement supporting the bill, said: "Food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person's consumption of legal, unadulterated food and a person's weight gain or obesity."
Opponents of the bill expressed support for the public's right to redress in the courts and pointed out that judges already have shown that they know how to deal with irresponsible lawsuits based on obesity.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., would prohibit many obesity- or weight-related claims against the food industry. It still would allow claims to go forward if state or federal laws had been broken, resulting in personal weight gain. The Senate is not expected to pass the legislation this year. Also stalled in the Senate are other measures backed by House Republicans as part of a movement to outlaw "frivolous" lawsuits, including bills to limit medical malpractice awards and shield gun makers and sellers