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U.S. panel releases battle plan against child obesity

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Oct. 1--To stem the growing problem of childhood obesity, food makers should curb aggressive marketing to children, while schools should reform their menus and reinvigorate physical education programs, according to a federal scientific panel commissioned by Congress.

The recommendations were part of a sweeping plan released by the Institute of Medicine yesterday. The report also called on parents to limit children's television viewing to two hours daily and urged local communities to encourage physical activity by building parks and sidewalks. And the federal government, which feeds nearly a fifth of the nation through various programs in schools, prisons, military bases, and poor areas, should design more health-conscious food programs, the report recommended.

As the government ramps up its battle against obesity, the sweep and scope of the report -- one author called it "nothing less than a revolution" -- underscored the magnitude of the childhood obesity problem in the nation. More than 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are obese, the fattest generation in US history. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, at higher risk for virtually every major chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Nutrition specialists attribute the problem to a series of trends: the ubiquity of inexpensive, fatty junk foods; more hours spent inert in front of television sets; unhealthy federal government food programs; high-fat school lunches; decline in school gym programs; a car-oriented culture that inhibits casual physical activity; and aggressive advertising by food companies and fast-food restaurants.

Parents are also to blame, according to the report. More than 60 percent of US adults are obese or overweight, federal statistics indicate. Obese parents are more likely to raise fat children and less able to detect weight problems in offspring, studies have found.

The obesity epidemic was first prominently chronicled in a 2001 report by the surgeon general, which included alarming details on the rise in childhood obesity. The Bush administration soon launched a series of anti-obesity initiatives. And Congress commissioned the Institute of Medicine, a national nonprofit scientific body, to recommend a plan targeting childhood obesity. The result was yesterday's report, drafted by 19 specialists over two years.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said yesterday he would immediately seek legislation based on the report's recommendations on regulating snack and soda machines in schools. Some recommendations by the panel, such as public education programs on nutrition, are already part of the Bush administration's antiobesity efforts. Other recommendations, including regulating food advertising, involve politically charged issues that may run into trouble on Capitol Hill.

But much of the report amounted to a plea for massive voluntary shifts in deeply ingrained societal habits, an attempt to reverse Americans' eating and activity trends. .

The report's central tenet was simple: Eat healthier, exercise more. But because children's lives are circumscribed by parents and society, the authors recommended several policies:

Parents should limit children's television and computer time to two hours daily.

Children should exercise an hour every day -- half during school recess or physical education class, the other 30 minutes at home.

Local school districts should design healthier meal plans and should more tightly regulate soda and snack machines.

Children's physicians should more aggressively monitor body weight and fat.

Local governments should revise zoning laws to permit construction of more sidewalks, parks, bike paths, and playgrounds.

The food-making, restaurant, and media industries should voluntarily limit advertising unhealthy foods to children. The Federal Trade Commission should be given authority to monitor the advertising.

"We're talking about something that's nothing less than a revolution," said Dr. Thomas Robinson, one of the authors of the report and a pediatrics researcher at Stanford University. "It has to involve so many elements in our society. . . . It's really going to require a major sea change in how we look at this problem."

The food industry was a clear target of the report, and the call for federal policing of food ads perhaps the simplest and most direct policy recommendation. The food industry spends as much as $13 billion annually on marketing to children, with the average American child viewing 20,000 junk food commercials annually, according to recent studies.

Many food and nutrition specialists view ad regulation as a key front in the obesity battle, and several of the study's authors indicated that they wanted tougher regulation. But politics and First Amendment implications make this a tricky issue.

Robert Earl, policy director for the National Food Processors Association, signaled that the industry would not embrace the recommendations, saying he would "study this report's recommendations closely. However, we believe that it is important that any steps taken to address obesity be not only science-based, but also realistic."

The Institute of Medicine panel chairman, Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan of Emory University, said voluntary food industry regulations, rather than more stringent measures, were sought to enlist corporate America in the battle against childhood obesity. "We're looking to responsible industry leaders to see this [problem] as well," he said. "No single group or sector acting alone can solve it."


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