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Dr. Pamela Peeke

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Swat Team to Aisle Three Please

Posted: 06/25/10 11:07 AM ET

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you eat can and will be used against you on the bathroom scale. You have the right to an aerobics class. If you cannot afford a gym, a park or sidewalk will be provided for you. Do you understand these rights and are you also aware that your right to choose your own foods and beverages is under attack by the food police? The food police are, once again, trying to fine, tax and legislate out of existence foods you love and have been eating for decades.

If things continue on the present course, you may soon find grocery shoppers handcuffed to the dairy case, caught red handed with a pint of ice cream, or surrounded by food police on a stake-out of the beverage aisle.

There's nothing funny about obesity. It's known to be associated with chronic diseases, undermines quality of life and can lead to an early grave. A significant portion of Americans - including many children - suffer from overweight or obesity. There's no doubt that we must find effective solutions to this public health issue, a problem that leads to sky-high healthcare costs, puts a strain on Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers and results in lost productivity.

Over the last year, rather than seeking real solutions, the obesity epidemic has been boiled down to blame. Some public health advocates have singled out sugar as the primary cause of obesity and pointed an accusatory finger at sugar-sweetened beverages as the chief culprit for everyone being so fat. But is this singular focus misguided?

In fact, our overweight and obesity problem is caused by a whole host of issues. In addition to over-consuming calories, socio-economic challenges, psychological issues, government policies with unintended consequences, consumer demand and business imperatives have all contributed to tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Obesity is clearly much bigger than any one category of foods or drinks.

What do solutions look like in real terms? It involves helping inner-city neighborhoods get real grocery stores that sell fresh produce at a reasonable price. It means changing our living habits so that instead of sitting on the couch watching "The Biggest Loser," we go take a walk around the block. It means reinstating physical education in our public schools. Our kids need those programs.

Such a range of causes requires solutions based on the participation of everyone - government, business, non-profit organizations, the medical community, schools, community and religious leaders... everyone, working together cooperatively to identify answers and take action.

Instead, we have a New York City Parent Teacher's Association limiting bake sales to just one a year. We have Chicago taxing a Hershey's bar but not a Kit-Kat. The Kit Kat bars are not considered candy because they contain flour. And we have a broad attempt by the food police in a number of states and cities to impose a tax on all sugar- sweetened beverages, from Coca-Cola to orange juice.

The proposed taxes are not a solution. Other experts also have questioned the impact of taxing food and beverages and asked, "Where do we draw the line?"

Dr. Michael J. Rinaldi of the Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute in a recent New England Journal of Medicine letter wrote, "If soda is taxed, should this tax also be applied to all fast food, confections or portion size? Why limit it to food? Should we not tax all behaviors linked to health care expenditures?"

Instead of levying a couch potato tax, we should be following the lead of First Lady Michelle Obama and Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, both of whom are advocating a healthy amount of regular exercise, a balanced, nutritious diet and even the occasional treat.

From my own research, I know that most people agree with this approach but reject the notion of the government interfering in their choice of food and drink. They want control of their own grocery carts.

So where is the happy medium? I say it's a place where we combine daily exercise with a moderate diet and assemble the right partners to educate and enable positive change.

The American College of Sports Medicine's global campaign "Exercise is Medicine," supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and associations and businesses like The National Dairy Council and Coca-Cola, is one that I work closely with and is an example of such a program working to create long-term solutions by ensuring that exercise is front and center in every discussion on disease prevention, health and wellness.

And isn't this a better recipe for addressing obesity than policing our grocery carts or demonizing certain foods? As enticing and well-intentioned as the idea may be to some, food and beverage taxes are not an effective form of girth control.

Dr. Pamela Peeke is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and author in the fields of nutrition, stress, fitness and public health. She is Chief Medical Correspondent for Discovery Health TV, and the author the bestselling books Fit to Live, Body for Life for Women, and Fight Fat After Forty. She serves as a frequent commentator for national broadcast networks.

Dr. Peeke holds the position of Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.