New York Controversy Emerges Over Food Portion Size Campaign

The New York City Department of Health recently launched a campaign to get New Yorkers to make their waistlines smaller by controlling their portion sizes when ordering food and beverages. “Consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.  “If New Yorkers cut their portions, they can cut their risk.”  The “Cut your portions. Cut your risk” campaign is billed as “hard-hitting” and has the purpose of making certain that people understand that large meals cause obesity.  Even worse, obesity can cause diseases like diabetes.  In one city poster, a man whose leg has been amputated because of Type 2 diabetes sits behind a graphic showing how soft drink portions have grown over the years.

Over the last 40 years, according to the Health Department, serving sizes for sugary soft drinks have grown four times, and the amount of French fries in a single order has tripled.  As a result, “a single meal could balloon to contain many more calories than the amount an adult needs for an entire day” – roughly 2,000.

Writing on the friendseat.com blog, Spence Cooper takes a more cynical attitude. “The number of New Yorkers motivated to make healthier choices and forgo that next order of large fries because of ad nauseam public service ads is equal to the number of New York smokers who pay attention to the warnings on cigarette packs. You can count them on one hand.”

The new posters, available in both English and Spanish, bear the message “Cut your portions. Cut your risk,” providing New Yorkers with a clear strategy for preventing obesity and its health penalties.  While the City has made strides in combating the nationwide trend of growing obesity, the majority of adult New Yorkers (nearly 57 percent) and two out of every five New York City elementary school children remain overweight or obese and the health consequences are dire, ranging from hypertension to type 2 diabetes.  Nearly 10 percent of New Yorkers have been told they have type 2 diabetes, which can lead to blindness, kidney failure and amputations. In 2006, nearly 3,000 New Yorkers with diabetes were hospitalized for amputations. Obese children and adolescents also are more likely to become obese adults. Even while young, they are more likely to develop obesity-related conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.”

Not all are in agreement with Farley’s campaign. The New York ads create an “inaccurate picture” of the impact of soft drinks, argues Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association.  “Portion control is indeed an important piece of the solution to obesity,” he said. “Instead of utilizing scare tactics, the beverage industry is offering real solutions like smaller portioned containers and new calorie labels that show the number of calories in the full container, right up front, to help people chose products and sizes that are right for them and their families,” he said.

The posters are appearing on subway stops around the city for the next three months. Mayor Bloomberg dismissed his critics who claim that the ads were too graphic and disturbing:  “What do you want to do? Do you want to have people lose their legs or do you want to show them what happens so that they won’t lose their legs? Take your poison. Which do you want?” said Bloomberg.

Many healthcare experts agree with Bloomberg. “Obesity rates in adults rose to 35.7 percent from 30.5 percent between 1999 and 2010, compared with rates that nearly doubled in the two previous decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported . The rate among boys climbed 29 percent, surpassing girls for the first time, according to the CDC.

More than 78 million American adults — as much as  one third of the population, and about 12.5 million children were considered obese in 2009- 2010, according to a series of studies reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The studies are part of a continuing CDC effort to track obesity rates with new numbers every two years.

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