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US Unveils New Anti-Obesity Strategy - 2004-03-12

U.S. health officials have unveiled a new strategy to combat the obesity epidemic they say threatens the health of millions in the country. The program focuses on making consumers aware of how much they are eating.

U.S. government food and drug regulators have issued recommendations that would make it easier for consumers to understand the calorie and nutrition content of food they buy in markets or restaurants.

The measures follow a study released Tuesday by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department showing that obesity and inactivity will soon overtake smoking as the primary cause of preventable deaths in the United States. The study showed that two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, and that the number deaths related to these conditions increased 33 percent between 1990 and 2000.

U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson says this trend is unacceptable and points out that the government is seeking to educate citizens that counting calories is important.

"You cannot lose weight if you eat more calories than you burn," he said. "Calories-in [consumed] must equal calories-out [burned]."

To make it easier to track calories, food and drug regulators in Mr. Thompson's agency are recommending clearer labels on food products and encouraging restaurants to provide calorie and nutrition information on menus. They also recommend increasing enforcement to ensure that food labels accurately portray portion sizes, and call for strengthened scientific research on obesity and developing healthier, low-calorie foods.

"We're looking at ways all along the spectrum to make sure that the consumer understands what's going on, but also helping the consumer make sure that the food he is going to purchase is going to be helpful to losing weight and making sure that we start reversing the trend," said Tommy Thompson.

Mr. Thompson praises the large U.S. doughnut store chain Krispy Kreme for introducing a low calorie doughnut, and the giant restaurant retailer McDonald's for phasing out its extra large portions. He suggests that such moves would encourage competitors to do the same and broaden the calorie-counting movement.

The new recommendations would rely on such voluntary food industry compliance for now.

"If this campaign doesn't work, then we're going to have to come back and take a harder look at it, and find more kinds of actions that are going to be more oppressive," said U.S. Health Secretary. "But right now, there hasn't been the kind of emphasis on this that we are putting on it, and I think we should let it work, and we're going to see how far we can go."

The U.S. government is also launching an advertising campaign to encourage people to eat healthfully and become gradually more active in their daily lives. Rather than calling for dramatic lifestyle changes, the ads suggest modest efforts, such as walking a flight of stairs rather than taking an elevator, or getting off a bus one block farther from one's destination.

Meanwhile, officials of the north-central U.S. state of Minnesota have asked Washington for permission to prevent poor people in the state from using U.S. government food support payments to purchase candy, soft drinks and other snack food. State officials say buying such items with welfare money is inconsistent with their efforts to encourage healthy nutrition. If national officials approve, Minnesota would become the first U.S. state to impose such restrictions.