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Tackling Obesity

Tackling ObesityAs Boston launches an effort to get restaurant-goers to eat healthier, a Friedman School food policy expert says that such programs need focused federal support.

Boston [10.10.06] Boston BestBites, a new initiative by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to get restaurants to serve healthier items on their menus, is attracting some participants among the city's many eateries. But according to Professor James Tillotson of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, even the best intentions of programs like BestBites may not be enough. The federal government, he contended in an opinion piece for The Boston Globe Magazine, must play a larger role.

"As a food policy professor, I endorse the mayor's program and wish participating restaurants the greatest success. They have done their part, but now will restaurant goers choose these healthy items?" he asked in the article.

Tillotson notes that national restaurant chains such as McDonald's and TGI Friday's have launched similar initiatives, only to have to scale back months later.

"Based on this national track record, I doubt that the BestBites program, no manner how well intentioned, will amount to much by itself."

The burden of educating consumers and encouraging healthy eating habits should not fall solely on the restaurants, Tillotson wrote in the magazine.

"…Restaurants should never be strong-armed to offer menu items such as fresh-fruit plates and dinner salads -- made from expensive, preparation-costly, and easily perishable ingredients -- if their particular clientele does not want to buy them and the owners would lose money," he wrote in the Globe. "Restaurants are businesses that need to satisfy customers, not public health or educational organizations."

Tillotson said that the federal government should be researching ways to encourage healthy eating habits in consumers and then applying those concepts in the development of programs like BestBites.

"There have been many government-funded studies on the best foods to eat for good health, yet little on how to successfully encourage Americans -- who live in a hectic, food-abundant world -- to learn how to choose good foods over bad," he wrote in the piece. "Today's textbook-like dietary guidelines and confusing food pyramid are hardly motivational."

Part of the problem, the food policy expert argued, is that the responsibility of overseeing efforts to stem the rise of obesity is spread across multiple agencies with varying tasks. To succeed, he said, a single agency should be charged with this goal.

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture share responsibility for telling us what to eat, the Food and Drug Administration has food labeling, the Federal Trade Commission has food advertising, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is keeping score," he detailed in the Globe. "This multiagency, mixed-agenda approach hasn't worked for our waistlines."

The impetus for change, Tillotson concluded, lies with the consumers themselves.

"Only Congress has the power and purse to solicit this research and create this agency. And this will only happen if we -- realizing our weight predicament, its health dangers, and its spiraling medical costs -- insist on change through our elected representatives and then conscientiously follow any national plan that gets results," he wrote in the Globe.



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