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His obesity theory: Fast food has us surrounded

October 06, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Kelly Brownell's crusade against fast food has made him persona non grata among industry lobbyists and restaurant associations but a hero to some obesity researchers and legislators.

They agree with Brownell, who is director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, that just saying no to fattening foods and super-sized portions isn't enough to combat escalating obesity rates.

"If you picked up the American food environment," says Brownell, "with its fast-food restaurants, the kinds of foods served in schools, food advertising and the lost cost of snack foods, and transplanted it to a country where there is very little obesity, you'd have an obesity problem."

Brownell is the coauthor of "Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About it," (Contemporary Books, 2003), which argues that the food industry and the organizations and people who support it must shoulder a large part of the blame for the nation's obesity problem.

Besides fast-food restaurants, Brownell blasts food companies that pander to children, celebrities who endorse sugary and fat-laden foods, and schools that allow vending machines stocked with chips, cookies and soda. He also advocates a tax on junk foods and using the money generated for children's nutrition programs.

Brownell acknowledges that people need to take personal responsibility for their expanding girth -- but only to a point: "Our default reaction to most problems is to ask people to change," he says. "But people who have used that as the battle cry for obesity have had their chance and failed utterly. Something more has to be done, and the nation deserves an environment where it's easy for people to be personally responsible."

His book follows similar literary wake-up calls, including Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and Greg Critser's "Fat Land." Brownell's distinctive views are familiar to many who specialize in food or obesity issues; he's been advocating taxes on junk food for years while suffering sneers from those who think his ideas are just plain nutty.

But as Brownell travels the country he's beginning to sense a shift in attitudes: "When I first started talking about this stuff, people went crazy," he says. "The biggest change is the issue of taxing food -- not that people are crazy about it, but they've gone from antagonistic to debating about it."

People are more open to his ideas, Brownell believes, because of the overwhelming evidence about the consequences of obesity, especially on children: "People have begun to see how children have been victimized. We've created this environment that is destined to make our children sick." A 2000 federal survey concluded that 15% of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight, more than double the rate in 1980.

The book chronicles the relentless pursuit of kids by food companies, starting at birth (baby bottles emblazoned with soft-drink logos) and continuing through early years (television commercials), and the school years (fast-food school lunches). It also details efforts by food companies to have products shown in films and TV shows, and to place soft-drink vending machines in schools in exchange for payments to the schools.

Parents are becoming savvier about the influence of marketing on children's attitudes.

"They're becoming more aware of the process these companies use to sell food," Brownell says.

He outlines a typical scenario in which a McDonald's Happy Meal contains a toy version of a movie character, the movie has product placements, and the character eventually becomes a sugary breakfast cereal. "Once they see the sequence parents are saying, 'This is not what I want from that company.' "

Brownell advocates a ban on advertisements of "unhealthy" products in ads targeting children. And his proposal for a junk-food tax would provide revenue for schools to offset payments from soft drink companies.

Some of Brownell's biggest skeptics are now standing with him on the front lines.

"When Kelly came out with the whole idea of food taxes I was absolutely against it," says Judith S. Stern, vice president of the American Obesity Assn. "I felt he was singling out one part of the economy that was contributing to obesity. But as I see the epidemic getting worse and worse, and I see the irresponsibility of food companies, I'm thinking, 'Gee, Kelly, we need more of you.' "

But not everyone agrees with his ideas for combating obesity. Liz Applegate, a senior lecturer in nutrition at UC Davis, believes that a decreasing lack of activity is the culprit, not soft drinks and French fries.

"I think Kelly's approach is a bit unrealistic," Applegate says. "If you get rid of all these things, we might be disappointed that we're not all thin and healthy. We need to take a bigger approach and have mandatory physical education in schools and safer places for kids to play. We need to take this on as a community."

Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, champions many of Brownell's ideas but doesn't think the public-policy changes and broad-based public-health initiatives that helped the country kick cigarettes will work for battling our growing girth: "What Kelly's doing is positive because it's creating an incentive for change," he says. "But most people who stopped smoking just stopped. I think diet is more difficult because what works for one person doesn't work for another."

Brownell says some progress is being made. He's pleased about new federal rules requiring information about transfat on food product labels, McDonald Corp.'s new salads, and a soda ban in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

And he is optimistic that the country's war against fat can be won: "I believe the most important victories against obesity will be from the bottom up rather than the top down," he says. "But I think some positive changes are already occurring."

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