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Chewin' the Fat: Whose Fault Is Obesity?

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The unctuous attorney berates the witness on the stand: "Just look at what your reckless cookie-baking business has done to my client!"

Curling his lips in contempt, the lawyer leans over the tiny defendant and charges: "You make them taste good on purpose . . . don't you?"

If you've seen this advertisement, airing since late June, you'll know that the defendant is a little girl in pigtails and a Girl Scout uniform.

The commercial is a pre-emptive strike in a strange argument: Who's to blame for the epidemic of obesity bulging across the land? Are individuals responsible for how much they eat --- and how little they exercise --- or are food companies and restaurants the real authors of our blimphood?

The combatants clashed last year when two teens brought suit against McDonald's, claiming that its McNuggets and fries gave them thunder thighs.

"Pretty soon the only foods we'll be allowed to enjoy are locally grown organic bowls of steam," says Mike Burita, spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom. The center, which sponsored the Girl Scout commercial, is funded by food companies, restaurants and consumers.

Fatuous or not, the issue of who's to blame for American gigantism reached the front burner last week when Kraft Foods, the $30 billion leader in the food manufacturing business, pledged to put its products on a diet. The maker of Oreos and Velveeta will reduce the sugar, fat and calories in many of its foods over the course of the next year, says Senior Vice President Michael Mudd.

Mudd says that the company is simply responding to consumer demand for a greater variety of healthier eatables. "We want to be the company that provides those products," he said.

Others surmised that Kraft, owned by Altria (formerly Philip Morris), is fully aware of the impact of class-action suits on tobacco companies and is taking steps to ward off the coming assault.

"The Kraft announcement is clearly one of the results of the threat of lawsuits," says Marion Nestle, chair of the nutrition department at New York University and author of "Food Politics."

Along with legal action come threats from other quarters. > Kelly Brownell of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders has proposed a "Twinkie tax" on certain fatty snack foods and is known to compare Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel. > Manufacturers will be required to label any "trans fat" in their products "very soon," according to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan. > The city of New York plans to ban the sale of soft drinks in the city's school vending machines.

Of the suit against McDonald's and the others that are apparently waiting in the wings, Burita says "it's basically harassment." The lawyers "are going to keep pushing for their payday in court."

Defenders of the food industry, such as Burita, naturally stress personal responsibility.

Rachel Brandeis, a dietician at Northside Hospital and a spokesperson for the American Association of Dietetics, agrees. "I don't think we can put all the blame on food manufacturers," she says. "Their job is to make food readily available and make it taste good. Our responsibility is to educate ourselves."

But the food industry also cautions legislators that labeling any food as "bad" food is scientifically suspect. If you tax chips, shouldn't you also tax avocados, says nutritionist Ruth Kava, since guacamole has even more calories than Baked Lays?

"If you eliminate fast-food stores I have sincere doubts that it would abate obesity," says Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health. "There are just as many other things that people can overeat that have just as many calories."

If we ban Cokes shouldn't we also ban orange juice from school vending machines? (An eight-ounce glass of orange juice offers the same calories as eight ounces of soda, says Kava, and few Americans are hurting for Vitamin C.)

Fast food gets the blame because "these are the foods that people love to hate."

What no one debates is the fact that the United States is one lardy nation. Some 60 percent of Americans are overweight; 15 percent of children age 12 to 19 are severely overweight, triple the percentage from 20 years ago.

The question is, who's to blame? And who's going to pay?

Most agree that obesity is a complex issue, dependent on lifestyle and genetics as much as eating habits.

Nestle, who participated in a brainstorming session last month with the Public Health Advocacy Institute on ways to take the food industry to task for their fatty offerings, says she isn't sure that lawsuits are the answer.

But, she adds, the $33 billion a year that the industry spends on marketing has helped make our populace pudgy, particularly the impressionable juvenile audience. She favors a ban on food marketing aimed at kids during children's television programming. "Yes, parents should be paying attention to their children's television, but lets give parents a break and make it a little easier for them."

Burita is unconvinced. Will a 50 percent cut in advertising mean we'll drink half the number of Big Gulps we currently chug?

Brandeis says the really hard part for parents is changing their own behavior. When we stop chugging sugary sodas, our children will follow suit, she says.

Other things must change as well. "Lots of people belong to gyms but even more people don't," says Kava. "And some people belong to gyms that don't use them. It's a lot more complicated than let's not have any burgers and fries and big drinks."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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