A Texas-size problem in my neck of the woods found its way to the national spotlight last week. A couple of years ago, Houston was saddled with a title it certainly didn't want: America's fattest city. A 2013 federal study revealed that nearly two-thirds of Houstonians were overweight or obese. In addition, it was found that 11 percent of this seriously overweight population had been told by a doctor they have diabetes. Approximately 22 percent lived in poverty and 23 percent lacked health insurance. Beyond these numbers, only 15 percent of Houston-area adults reported eating the recommended five or more fruits and vegetables a day, according to a recent report in USA Today. Less than 20 percent said they met federal exercise guidelines.
The city has been moving aggressively in the past few years to shake this disagreeable title. Three years ago, city officials launched a program called "Go Healthy Houston." The goal was to ensure that residents throughout the metropolitan area had better access to healthful foods, physical activity, and tobacco-free zones. These steps were seen as necessary in order to improve the city's health.
The program came to light last week as the central topic of a local forum sponsored by USA Today and the global health services organization, Cigna. One part of the program is focused on Go Healthy Houston working in partnership with the city and the community organization, CAN DO Houston, trying to get fresh fruits and vegetables, healthful beverages and healthful snacks onto convenience store shelves. This effort is being done in connection with an educational program through which healthful foods can be sampled and free cooking demonstrations are performed. To create more options for exercise, this year the city opened its first protected bike lane in the heart of downtown.
Though it's too early to call the program an all-out success, a 2015 obesity ranking of the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas now ranks Houston at 35, No. 1 being the city with the least obesity. City officials and community organizers acknowledge there's a long way to go.
And, they might add, there is still much to overcome.
In a recent blog post, Jane E. Brody, a specialist in medicine and biology and longtime "Personal Health" columnist for The New York Times, lamented the many obstacles we face today in this effort to improve the American diet. She cites the inability of healthful foods to compete with the billions of dollars processed food titans spend annually as but one example.
Nutrition science has contributed to the problem as well, she reminds us. They constantly seem to mix the message, confusing the public with a relentless back-and-forth debate. A prime example is the current go-round on the health effects of fats and cholesterol; touting this diet and that, demonizing some dairy products while giving a pass to ice cream and cheese. It seems the more conflicting information we learn about nutrition, the more people become inclined to ignore the core issue. Also moving people astray is the economics of it all. The not-so-good food and drinks we have been conditioned to like generally cost less than the ones we should be consuming for the benefit of mind and body.
Though health-conscious eaters shun fats, even wholesome ones found in olive oil, there seems to be very limited focus on sugars, she adds. Most so-called energy bars, loved by many health-conscious consumers, contain as much sugar as a regular candy bar.
As a recent opinion piece by the Editorial Board of USA Today reminds us, 1 in 3 children in the United States are overweight or obese. About 27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join the military. Concern about this health crisis is what ushered in bipartisan support for a nutritionally based school lunch bill in 2010. Yet as Congress moves to reauthorize this program sometime this fall, many key improvements to the program are under attack.
The potato lobby successfully fought off guidelines that would limit servings of starchy vegetables to twice a week. Makers of frozen pizza won their battle to ensure that tomato paste will continue to be counted as a vegetable. Industry sights are also set on cutting a proposal by 50 percent that would mandate all pastas, breads and pizzas as rich in whole grains. Another proposal would eliminate the requirement that every child take at least one fruit or vegetable at lunch.
Even in the best circumstances, it is challenging for schools to produce healthful, appealing meals on limited budgets. But given the stakes, is it responsible to continue feeding them the junk food they've learned to crave? Should we not commit to doing a better job of finding ways to make healthful food more appealing?
If school lunch customers could come together to demand more nutritious food items, is there any doubt that the food industry would find ways to comply?
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.