This Thursday, Susan Finn is scheduled to debate Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, on the causes of and solutions to the nation's obesity epidemic.
The debate, to be held at the Consumer Federation of America's National Food Policy Conference in Washington, marks one of Finn's first speaking engagements since being named chair of the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, a new nonprofit group comprised of more than 50 food, beverage, consumer products companies, trade associations and organizations.
The purpose of the ACFN is to endorse and support the balance between fitness and nutrition to improve the health of Americans, particularly children. The ACFN will promote programs and policies that emphasize the importance of proper nutrition and regular physical activity. Members include Coca-Cola-Co., ConAgra Foods, Food Marketing Institute, General Mills, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble. An advisory board comprised of medical and nutrition professionals guides the group.
Finn's debate with Jacobson is likely to be lively, as the CSPI, Washington, a nutrition advocacy organization, has criticized certain packaged goods for their fat and sugar content, among other issues.
CSPI is not alone. Others, too, have blamed the obesity problem on some consumer packaged goods, along with other types of foods. This had led to tighter restrictions on vending machine sales, and there has been talk about taxing products like soft drinks.
Restrictions are not the answer, Finn said. In fact, some data shows that they aren't effective. She points to West Virginia as an example. The state has strict vending machine regulations, yet still has the highest percentage of overweight children, according to Finn. Some states with a high percent of lean kids, meanwhile, have the most liberal vending machine rules.
True, some foods shouldn't be consumed in large amounts. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be readily available to those who want them, Finn said. Rather, consumers should be educated about making healthy food choices.
"I am not a believer in labeling food as good and bad," she said.
Virtually all foods can fit into a healthy diet. It's not the type of food that's the problem; it's the quantity, said Finn. Of course, physical activity also plays an important role.
"No doubt, there's a distortion of portion size," she said. "No one is going to stop eating chocolate. The point is, how much is OK?"
Tax proposals and other restrictions are often based on emotion, not sound science or facts, said Kari Bjorhus, director, health and nutrition communications, Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta.
"No one food or beverage causes obesity," Bjorhus said. "All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle. What's critical is finding a balance between input and output."
Coca-Cola is working to do just that with its Step With It! program. Now in its second year, "Step With It!" challenges middle school students to take at least 10,000 steps a day by walking, running, jumping rope, dancing and other activities. Participants receive Stepometers, small pedometers that keep track of the number of steps they take. The program was launched in 50 schools last year, and is slated to roll out to 250 more this year.
This is one example of how manufacturers are doing their part to combat obesity. Finn said many others, including Kraft and Heinz, are developing physical education/nutrition programs and Web sites packed with nutrition information.
As the ACFN chair, Finn will advocate for practical answers for improving America's health, including policies based on behavioral research. She will also work with the media, and will lead sessions with health and medical professionals, recreation and fitness experts, parent groups, educators and policy makers.
Finn has a long career in the field of nutrition and health. A registered dietitian, she was employed by Ross Products, a division of Abbott Laboratories, for 30 years, most recently as director of the nutrition and communications department. In this position, she was responsible for the nutrition and education programs for dietitians, nurses, physicians, pharmacists and other health care professionals. Finn is also past president of the American Dietetic Association and co-author of two books.
"Dr. Finn has devoted many years to educating the public about nutrition, and she demonstrates an exceptional passion for helping people achieve a healthier balance for life," said C. Manly Molpus, president and chief executive officer, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, a founding member of the ACFN. "This determination and spirit will serve her well in her new role."
The ACFN has three immediate goals:
To improve the health of Americans, particularly kids.
To present solutions.
To advocate for policies that can make a difference, like physical education.
To achieve its goals, ACFN is developing curricula about fitness and nutrition for use in public schools across the country.
The ACFN is needed because, while the nation is certainly addressing the obesity issue, more needs to be done, Finn said.
"There are a lot of positive things going on across the country, but unfortunately there are only pockets of them," she said.
Having an organization backed by major consumer product firms lends more resources to the effort, Finn said.
"We can use the power of the industry to communicate our message," said Finn, citing such resources as point-of-purchase advertising, food labels, advertising and Web sites. The ACFN is sponsoring "listening tours" in which Finn will attend community meetings across the country to find out what types of obesity-fighting initiatives exist and work. "We want to find out what people are doing to get kids moving," she said.
The ACFN has more than 50 manufacturer and association members. A complete list is on www.acfn.org. Members include:
1. Coca-Cola Co.
2. ConAgra Foods
3. Del Monte Foods
4. Food Marketing Institute
5. General Mills
6. Grocery Manufacturers of America
7. Hershey Foods Corp.
8. H.J. Heinz Co.
9. Kellogg Co.
10. Kraft Foods
11. Masterfoods USA
12. Nestle USA
13. Pepsi Cola Co.
14. Procter & Gamble
15. Sara Lee Corp.
16. Quaker Oats Co.
ACFN GUIDING PRINCIPLES
The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition and its members believe in the following guiding principles:
1. Maintaining a healthy weight and achieving optimal health and wellness throughout life requires a conscious balancing of physical activity and nutrition tailored to meet each individual's needs, preferences and lifestyle.
2. Learning how to maintain a healthy weight for optimal health and wellness throughout life is a fundamental educational objective for each individual and for the nation.
3. Helping people learn how to maintain a healthy weight is a responsibility shared by all sectors of society that affect an individual's knowledge, awareness and behavior in balancing physical activity and nutrition.
4. Providing children, parents and families the information and tools to develop life skills in maintaining a healthy weight through the proper balance of fitness and nutrition is a national priority.
5. Educating children to develop good habits early by incorporating physical activity and balanced eating choices into their daily lives is key to maintaining a healthy weight for optimal health.
6. Informing and educating consumers, especially parents and their children, how to meet their individual needs, tastes and preferences through the proper balance of fitness and nutrition empowers consumers to maintain a healthy weight.
7. Identifying, evaluating and adequately funding effective, science-based, culturally appropriate fitness and nutrition education programs should be accomplished through public-private partnerships to extend resources, reach and impact.
8. Providing employees of member organizations with fitness and nutrition education, as well as resources to engage their communities, will enable individuals to maintain a healthy weight.
9. Researching, developing and marketing healthful products that demonstrate our commitment to supporting individuals exercising personal choice in balancing fitness and nutrition.
10. Addressing the health disparities among regional, ethnic and economically disadvantaged groups requires working with these groups to develop science-based, culturally appropriate fitness and nutrition education materials.