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How Are Public Health Initiatives Encouraging Healthy Choices?

By Randall Gerber March 18, 2017 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

You've probably heard about what experts are calling the obesity epidemic. Very likely, you've experienced its effects firsthand, whether through your own struggles with weight or those of a friend or loved one -- more than two out of three Americans are overweight or obese.

Elected officials are aware of the problem, and many states and local communities have instituted public health initiatives to combat the issue by encouraging healthier lifestyle and food choices. In 2016, three California communities (Albany, Oakland, and San Francisco), along with Boulder, Colorado, and Cook County, Illinois, passed measures to impose higher taxes on soda, a commonly cited culprit behind the epidemic. By encouraging healthier choices, such as replacing soda with water, these and similar initiatives around the country aim to mitigate the lifestyle factors associated with obesity and related conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.

Other Food Initiatives

Some public health initiatives expand options for low-income families: Food stamps can now be used at farmers markets, for example. But discouraging less-than-optimal choices isn't always easy: Maine's governor tried unsuccessfully to restrict people from using food stamps to purchase junk food.

There are also specific communities that are making a particularly concerted effort. The Navajo Nation -- where incomes are low and the obesity rate is three times the national average -- instituted a 2 percent tax on junk food and sodas. Navajo leaders also eliminated a 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Starting Early

Patterns established in youth often carry into adulthood. Accordingly, many public health initiatives in our schools aim to offer better choices to our children and establish healthy habits early in life. California law requires licensed day-care centers to serve only low-fat or fat-free milk, limit juice to one serving per day, and to eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages. School districts must also provide fresh drinking water free of cost in school cafeterias.

Lack of physical activity exaggerates the impact of high-sugar, high-fat foods. Three states, including California, require daily physical education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Seven states, including Nevada, require daily recess through the sixth grade.

But of course, the choices that kids make in school are only one part of the problem -- the bigger picture is creating a healthier food environment. A study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the healthiest, most active children tended to live in neighborhoods with grocery stores, supermarkets, or other places where fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food choices are available. But in many communities, you'll find fast-food restaurants just a few minutes' walk from school. To address this issue, some communities are using a 1926 U.S. Supreme Court case, which ruled that zoning could be used to preserve the public health, to limit fast food outlets near schools.

Making the Choice

Incentives to make healthier choices can come in many forms -- more convenient and affordable healthy choices, less access to unhealthy choices, and a stronger role for physical activity in our daily lives. But laws and regulations won't ensure healthier lives on their own. Getting behind the public health initiatives that you believe in can have a great impact, but it's even more important to start the change at home by making the best choices for ourselves and our family.

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