Fight obesity one meal at a time

Can county health departments help slow the expansion of Minnesotans' waistlines? We'll soon find out.

In 2008, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Statewide Health Improvement Program, which allocated $47 million to improve our eating habits, increase our levels of physical activity and reduce our use of tobacco. Olmsted County is expected to receive $1.1 million, some of which will be used to increase the availability of fruits and vegetables in public school cafeterias.

That's a good place to start, given that rates of childhood obesity are soaring. We know that overweight kids are likely to become obese adults, and that the longer a person is obese, the more difficult it is for them to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Clearly, this is a problem that's best nipped in the bud, and we hope this state-funded effort will produce results.

And there's every possibility that it will. No, teenagers won't always opt for an apple, a peach or some carrot sticks over french fries or onion rings, but there's plenty of evidence that kids, when given the opportunity to make healthy menu choices, will at least give them a try.

Other aspects of the fight against obesity, however, will be more challenging.


Public health officials today often liken obesity and its health effects to tobacco and all of its associated ills, and it's a comparison that works, up to a certain point. Being overweight is a primary risk factor for developing cancer and other health problems, and just as reduced smoking rates translate into lower health care costs, reducing or at least stabilizing Minnesota's obesity rate would save the state billions of dollars.

But the fight against obesity will be far different from the fight against smoking, because tobacco isn't a necessity of life. We can't quit food cold turkey, nor wean ourselves off it over time. Every day is a balancing act, and it's easy to feel as if the cards are stacked against us as we seek that balance.

Our daily schedules are tight, especially in single-parent households or families in which both parents work. Fast food is relatively inexpensive, as are processed foods from the grocery store's freezer section. Given the choice between popping a pizza into the oven or actually preparing a meal from scratch, too often our schedules dictate the easier option.

The key is to not let the schedule rule our diets. Perhaps the way to begin winning the war against obesity is one meal at a time.

So dig out that cookbook you received two Christmases ago. Choose one night each week when you won't be pressed for time and make a point of preparing a healthy meal, using fresh ingredients if possible. Let everyone in the household play a role in cooking it. If you have nice dishes in the cupboard, use them. And when the weather gets better and the days get longer, go for a walk before you clear the table. You'll be less likely to fall asleep on the sofa, and you might reacquaint yourself with a neighbor or two.

The fact is, the county can't shop for us. It can't cook our meals or pack our lunches. It can't make decisions for us at the drive-thru.

And it can't make us turn on the treadmill that's been collecting dust for six months.




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