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Fábregas: Many contributions but few tough solutions for obesity in America

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Russian journalist Ilmira Alimguzina arrived in Pittsburgh last week, eager to learn about all things American: history, government and — wouldn't you know it — obesity.

Alimguzina, who is shadowing Trib journalists, told me that she's interested in the issue of obesity because it's a problem in her hometown of Bashkortostan.

You see, McDonald's restaurants have popped up across Russia since the 1990s, exposing the country to a steady diet of Big Macs, milk shakes and fries. The chain has more than 400 restaurants in Russian cities.

“We have a generation of children who go to McDonald's to eat,” said Alimguzina, 25, who worked at McDonald's before becoming a reporter for an online news service. “They love Happy Meals.”

Yes, America, Happy Meals are a thing in other parts of the world. We're not the only ones obsessed with junk food, and by that I mean much more than McDonald's. We love potato chips, chipped ham and Kraft macaroni and cheese.

Frankly, it's fascinating how people from other countries view our customs and culture, particularly when it comes to health and our expanding waistlines.

Not that obesity is a unique American problem. Obesity afflicts 1.9 billion adults around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Some blame the influence of processed Western foods — the trans fats, salt and the high-fructose corn syrup found in cookies and snack cakes.

For someone such as Alimguzina, coming to the United States for the first time, our bad eating habits can be jarring. She told me about her first shopping experience at Giant Eagle, where it's cheaper to buy a slice of pizza or a sandwich with processed deli meat than fresh ingredients to make a healthy meal.

Alimguzina visited the Weight Management and Wellness Center at Children's Hospital, where experts told her that they see more than 1,000 children every year. Jodi Krall, project director for weight management and wellness, said parents can be the biggest barrier for children to eat healthy meals.

“Parents themselves have to make the changes” when it comes to diet, Krall said. “It's a family decision to implement a healthier lifestyle.”

Not a big surprise. If we're snacking on doughnuts and Doritos, how can we expect our kids to eat carrot sticks and kale chips?

There's no easy solution to the problem. In Puerto Rico, where I was born and grew up, legislators are considering a bill that would fine parents of obese children up to $800. Supporters say they simply want to encourage parents to make their children lose weight.

But this is a punitive approach that won't work and smacks of a way to collect more revenue. Where would you draw the line?

Would they require kids to be weighed in schools and shamed in a school assembly? What about children who are overweight because of medical complications and genetic factors?

Obesity is a complex problem, no matter the country. As Alimguzina suggested, it's a problem that requires broad societal changes, such as supporting local farmers and making sure people in poor areas have access to affordable — yet healthy — meals.

Obesity as a health problem deserves attention from the international community, not just the United States.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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