Faced with a growing obesity epidemic, New York's government is cooking up a new raft of initiatives to help citizens eat healthier.
City to dish out second helping of food reform
NEW YORK // Take a walk around Midtown Manhattan at 6am on a weekday morning and the city's gyms are already filled with sweating New Yorkers in search of the body beautiful. But as with so many other trends, the quest for health appears to be largely confined to the island of Manhattan and a few other pockets around the United States, which overall remains gripped in the midst of an obesity epidemic. City governments are nonetheless far from finished with taking the lead to improve the health of their citizens. They were the first to ban smoking in public places, prohibit restaurants from using trans fats and force fast-food restaurant chains to post calorie-counts on menus. Now they are taking aim at the amount of salt used in processed foods and have floated the idea of taxing sugary drinks. "New York is a leader in health reform and sets an example to everywhere else," said Jennifer Crum, a nutritionist at New York Unversity's Langone Medical Centre. "Millions of people live here in tight-knit communities and it's easier to implement new regulations." New York City's initiatives are being followed up in a number of regions nationwide as well as around the state, where the overall health picture remains dismal. David Paterson, New York state governor, has urged lawmakers to extend across the state the requirement to post calorie counts on menus and the ban on restaurants using trans fats, which are created when a vegetable oil is pumped with hydrogen and increases the amount of low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol. Trans fats appear solid and remain so when ingested, contributing to the clogging of arteries. Mr Paterson said 60 per cent of New Yorkers were overweight or obese. In high-poverty areas, 33 per cent of young people were obese. Doctors say that for the first time in history, many children are expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Preliminary studies show that calorie-posting, which applies to restaurants with 15 outlets or more and was introduced in New York City last year, is having an effect on people's eating habits. "We did a survey showing that some people had changed what they ate," said Ms Crum. "It might take 10 to 30 years to get definitive scientific data but that's a long time to put people's health in jeopardy if we don't do anything." Federal guidelines call for no more than 2,200 calories per day for a sedentary male aged between 31 and 50. A Double Whopper sandwich at Burger King can alone contain 900 calories while a Tripple Whopper Sandwich with cheese is 1,230. But some lawmakers remain opposed to the idea of imposing further regulation on business. "Government should stay out of our lives," Joseph Coppola Jr, a Republican state lawmaker in Connecticut, told The New York Times. "If people are stupid enough to fill their diet with trans fats, they're just stupid." Such sentiment has not deterred New York City chiefs from talking with food manufacturers about reducing the amount of salt used in soup, bread and other processed foods in an effort to cut rates of high blood pressure and heart disease. Industry hopes the reductions will remain voluntary but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a request that the government regulate salt content. Plans proposed by Mr Paterson to impose a tax on sugary drinks were rejected by state lawmakers earlier this year but the idea has received national attention as states and the federal government grapple with rising budget deficits amid the recession. A known advocate of a sugary drink tax is Dr Thomas Frieden, who was New York City's health commissioner before he was recently chosen by President Obama to lead the National Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. A sugary drink tax does not appear on the immediate horizon and Ms Crum said more debate was needed given that sugary drinks included not only beverages such as Coca-Cola but also "fruit" juices, many of which have little fresh fruit content. Officials are increasingly worried that too few Americans are listening to the pervasive messages about healthy living of recent years. Over the last 20 years, the number of people aged 40 to 74 who eat five fruits and vegetables a day has dropped to 26 per cent from 42 per cent, said a study in this month's American Journal of Medicine. The obesity rate has increased to 36 per cent from 28 per cent while the number of people who said they exercised for at least 30 minutes three times a week fell to 43 per cent from just over half. Ms Crum said part of the problem was that the regulatory framework remained diffuse and bureaucratic. The FDA deals with food manufacturers, for example, while the agriculture department deals with animals and crops used in food. "There needs to be a single watchdog for everything that people put into their mouths," she said. "Every day I hear stories of clients trying every diet and having a hard time. "We need to step back and ask what's best for the American people in their day-to-day lives." firstname.lastname@example.org