Peter Knight says that business can only do so much to counter the obesity epidemic

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, would have been happy. My rather large neighbours at the diner counter in the Bronx had chosen the healthy breakfast option – an omelette made from egg whites, steamed broccoli and onions. This is exactly the sort of meal the mayor, a great campaigner for healthy eating, would like to see his subjects consume.

But then my neighbours went and ruined it all, ordering sides of home fries (fried potato mash) and bacon. On top they poured at least half a bottle of ketchup.

No wonder 130 retired generals have called on the US Congress to pass child nutrition legislation because a quarter of American men are too fat to fight.

The previous night I watched Jamie Oliver campaigning in Huntington, West Virginia, for healthier school food. Oliver has charmed Americans with a TV series that replicated his UK school dinners campaign.

He is in good company. The first lady, Michelle Obama, is leading her Let’s Move! campaign to get America’s children running, jumping and eating better. She has started a vegetable garden at the White House and is using her considerable charm and intelligence to promote healthier lifestyles.

America is clearly worried about its weight. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 34% of US adults are obese, more than double the number of 30 years ago. Child obesity has tripled in the same period.

But there is good news too. The disease control centre maintains that US obesity rates have levelled off. The statisticians argue that all those who are genetically and psychologically susceptible have become as fat as they are going to get. The challenge is how to start reducing the numbers to avoid the consequent costs of treating allied ailments, such as diabetes.

What’s to be done? No matter how much cor blimey Jamie talks about his nan’s pantry to totally baffled Virginians, personal campaigns such as his and Mrs Obama’s can only make a dent.

Harvard public health professor Steven Gortmaker says it is all about policies and we should be introducing penalties and incentives to promote healthier foods and more exercise. This talk annoys the right wing and frightens the food industry because they have seen it used to control tobacco and alcohol.

Bitter pill

Already, a sugar tax has been suggested as a way of curbing the amount of sweet drinks Americans consume with such abandon. This would put a cent or two on the price of a sugared drink (penalty) and spare the artificially sweetened versions (incentive).

But no matter what you think about the stupidity of drinking too many sugary drinks, this tax is nothing but a cynical attempt by cash-strapped politicians to boost revenues by taxing what is increasingly perceived as a social evil.

The next step would be to extend the tax from drinks to prepared foods deemed to be bad for you, which could include virtually anything in the store other than celery and lettuce.

The middle ground is to provide the American consumer with better information. Food labelling in the US is very sketchy and far less informative than in Europe (which is hardly a gold standard). New York City, under the persistent prodding of its mayor, is turning into the food information laboratory of the nation. All restaurant chains, from Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts, have to list the calories of their food offerings.

Restaurants have had to remove trans-fats from their products and there is now pressure to reduce salt. Nationwide, there is much talk about restricting food marketing aimed at children and ensuring that toys are not offered as incentives to buy fast foods. Pressure on the food and drinks industry grows daily. But is this fair?

The really fat gorillas in the room are the nation’s parents who, it appears, have abdicated responsibility for instilling healthy eating habits in their children.

While the food industry must be held responsible for the stuff it offers the nation, nobody is forcing us to eat their sugary muck. I suggest that politicians force the food industry to be transparent about the ingredients used in processed food. And then cajole parents to make sensible decisions.

Some will say “fat chance” of that ever happening.

Oh well, I might as well pop down to my local KFC for a Double Down. This is the latest fast food innovation: melted cheese, strips of fatty bacon and the Colonel’s sauce, sandwiched between two slices of deep fried chicken. Yum.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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