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Obesity vs. ‘nanny state’? Recommendations lead to backlash

A new report offers some of the most radical and sweeping recommendations yet for battling the nation’s obesity problem, including: banning sugary drinks and junk food at schools, monitoring how much weight pregnant women gain, requiring child-care facilities to make sure young wards stay active, restricting the types of foods that can be marketed to children and putting the boss in charge of watching a workers’ bottom line.

But it’s not just the nation’s diet and fitness that would get a makeover. The Institute of Medicine would also encourage an infrastructure overhaul: that is, building communities that emphasize physical activity, such as adding sidewalks to encourage walking, running and biking.

These recommendations -- made Tuesday at a government-led conference on the nation’s health -- were greeted with applause by healthcare advocates alarmed at the nation’s obesity problem.

But in other corners, the recommendations were seen as a shift away from personal responsibility. Some critics said that America is turning into a “nanny state” in which people are stripped of their right to make deeply personal decisions about such things as what to put inside their and their children’s bodies.

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Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said the recommendations portrayed the public as victims who can’t take care of themselves or their children without government intervention. As Exhibit A, Limbaugh alerted listeners to the news out of Massachusetts, where some say new rules intended to crack down on junk food in schools will in effect scuttle that time-honored fundraiser, the bake sale.

That sentiment was echoed throughout social media as well (although the general sentiment on Twitter seemed to run in favor of the recommendations):

“It will never end with nanny state liberals. We just have to tell them to shut up,” said one tweet. “Great. Just what we need, more regulations,” said another. “The government, state and federal overstepping boundaries in our lives to do what’s BEST for us,” said one commenter at BostonHerald.com

The recommendations announced Tuesday by the Institute of Medicine aren’t exactly new. Healthcare advocates have been trying to crack down on sugary drinks aimed at kids for years. And the “hands off my Cheetos” criticism isn’t all that new, either.

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But the collision comes as health experts sound a new alarm about the nation’s obesity problem: The ranks of obese Americans are expected to swell even further in the coming years, rising from 36% of the adult population today to 42% by 2030, a report said Monday.

“The staggering human toll of obesity-related chronic disease and disability, and an annual cost of $190.2 billion for treating obesity-related illness, underscore the urgent need to strengthen prevention efforts in the United States,” the report said.

But the recommendations from the Washington-based Institute of Medicine do seem a bit pie-in-the-sky.

Many of the recommendations would face almost unfathomable political battles, not to mention budgetary constraints. One suggestion asks the nation’s businesses to “create, or expand, healthy environments by establishing, implementing and monitoring policy initiatives that support wellness.” That translates into making sure work sites promote “healthy eating and active living.”

Many of the recommendations would ask schools to shoulder much of the burden for change, even though districts nationwide are struggling financially just to maintain the bare-bones curriculum.

But the institute -- the nonprofit health arm of the National Academy of Sciences -- is clearly hoping that even small, voluntary improvements will add up to big improvements in the nation’s collective health.

“On their own, accomplishing any one of these might help speed up progress in preventing obesity, but together, their effects will be reinforced, amplified and maximized,” the report says.

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rene.lynch@latimes.com

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