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Published June 29, 2010, 01:09 PM

Obesity issue revolves around a need for responsibility, change

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two years’ worth of national publicity certainly has put an exclamation point on the problem of obesity.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two years’ worth of national publicity certainly has put an exclamation point on the problem of obesity.

Between national news reports and a television series, we now understand the statistics are bad and changes are needed if we are to avoid a rising tide of health problems and health care costs. In many ways, West Virginia finds itself on the front lines of delving into the complexity of the problem and the questions that it raises.

Is this primarily an issue of personal responsibility, where individuals and families just need the education and commitment to improve their diet and exercise? Or is it a national public-policy issue that involves the food industry, school programs and government regulations?

Whose issue is it?

We are learning that it’s both.

Should communities focus on local initiatives or lobby for changes across the country?

Again, it seems we need to do both.

Take, for example, the school lunch program that was the focus of the “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” television series. Viewers learned that students often are served processed foods that are higher in fats, sugars and chemical preservatives.

At first blush, the show implied the problem was people — children and parents who did not know any better, school employees who did not want to change. But as we dig deeper into the issue, we find that there also are layers of challenges with school lunch budgets and how the federal government subsidizes school lunch programs.

The choices each individual makes are critical, but there is a strong argument that the American food industry needs to take a greater responsibility in offering more healthy options. Too many heavily marketed foods items are “over the top” on calories, fat and sodium.

Considering that obesity and related diseases such as diabetes account for as much as 10 percent of our nation’s skyrocketing health care costs, proposals for more regulation already are surfacing.

So, it is encouraging to see a coalition of food industry giants — including General Mills, Kraft Foods, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and Pepsi — pledging to reduce the calorie counts of their products by 2015. The restaurant industry, which gets about half of the American food dollar, is beginning to pay attention as well.

We did not create this problem overnight, and it will take time and persistence to bring real change.