Preventing obesity requires coordinated efforts; LSU AgCenter hosts nutrition summit

Pamela Hodson, Merrill, Thomas A., Mullen, Stephen R.  |  3/20/2009 2:28:04 AM

News Release Distributed 03/19/09

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Obesity is a growing problem for the state of Louisiana, and coordinated efforts in the fight against it are important to potential success in stemming the obesity epidemic.

That was the message echoed by experts at a Baton Rouge gathering this week hosted by the LSU AgCenter.

Called the State Nutrition Action Plans Summit, the Wednesday (March 18) meeting involved participants from 19 parishes across southeastern Louisiana, including the Baton Rouge and New Orleans metropolitan areas. It was designed to bring together representatives of various state, regional and local groups involved in nutrition education, feeding programs and other related fields for a day of networking and discussion.

“We know that nutrition agencies and nutrition educators can achieve a greater impact on the health of our citizens by working collectively and coordinating our efforts,” said Dr. Pam Hodson, a regional director with the LSU AgCenter. “So we’ve brought people from across a broad spectrum of nutrition and health programs here today.

“We hope at the end of the day we can all agree to focus on some of the same key messages as far as nutrition education is concerned,” she added.

Among the approximately 75 participants were LSU AgCenter nutrition educators and specialists from southeast Louisiana along with representatives of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the state Department of Education, the Southern University Ag Center and a variety of school systems, food banks, councils on the elderly and other groups across the region.

“Each of you is the most important person here, because solutions depend on all of us,” said Dr. Steve Mullen, another LSU AgCenter regional director in the areas represented at the summit. “The whole point of today is to have all of us come together for the benefit of the people of our state.

“I have every confidence that we can accomplish great things by working together,” he added.

Coordinated by the LSU AgCenter’s Family Nutrition Program, one of the AgCenter’s many efforts targeted toward nutrition and health, the summit’s major objective was to find ways state nutrition agencies and other nutrition-assistance programs can successfully promote increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by the state’s residents.

“We are not a very healthy state,” said Dr. Tom Farley of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, who was a keynote speaker at the summit. “We run about 49th in terms of our health statistics.”

Farley said Louisiana’s problem areas aren’t substantially different from other areas of the country but are “just worse.” He also pointed out that since one-third of Americans are obese and another third are overweight, it basically is “normal to be unhealthily overweight in the United States today.”

Citing the role dietary factors play in a variety of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and others, Farley also pointed out that nutrition and dietary components are second only to tobacco use as contributing factors in the deaths of Louisianans.

Farley said Americans consume way too many sweets and not enough fruits and vegetables and he cited foods such as soft drinks and salty snacks as some of the culprits in the obesity epidemic.

“As nutritionists, you’re taught that there are no such things as good foods and bad foods – that any food is good in a balanced, healthy diet,” he said. “But I think we should be able to say there are good foods and bad foods.

“I think we should say soft drinks are a bad food in relation to their contribution to the obesity epidemic. And I think we should put salty snacks in there, too,” he added.

On the other hand, Farley said he would classify fruits and vegetables as good foods.

“Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is good in terms of reducing weight gain and combating the obesity epidemic,” the health expert said. “So we should say ‘eat more fruits and vegetables and don’t consume junk food.’”

Farley said those messages also need to be augmented by actions that make fruits and vegetables more readily available and sugary drinks and fattening snacks less available or less attractive – in schools, in fast food outlets, in convenience stores, in supermarkets and other places people go.

Associated Grocers President J.H. Campbell gave the retailers’ perspectives on the need for consumers to have healthy choices. He discussed the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System, which provides point-of-purchase nutrition information for consumers. That program is now used in other states and eventually will come to Louisiana, Campbell said.

John Dupre, director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s Division of Nutrition Assistance, said participating in a summit like the one this week provides a variety of benefits.

“The biggest benefit of being here is collaboration and networking to provide information to one another,” Dupre said. “When everyone knows what’s available, we can have a greater impact with the resources available.”

In addition, another summit participant, Pamela Romero, coordinator of the Louisiana Obesity Council for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said developing a common message, such as stressing increased fruit and vegetable consumption, was critical.

“This (summit) gets nutritionists from all state agencies collaborating and promoting a single message,” Romero said. “And if we are all saying the same thing, we are more likely to get changes made.”

A portion of the summit was devoted to discussions focused on how nutritionists could increase their impact on the health of Louisiana citizens and ways to improve communication and collaboration among various groups and agencies.

“We’re finding that any time you can bring state agencies together and find out what everyone is doing, you learn something new about where to go and how to get things done,” said Dr. Brent Robbins, an assistant commissioner with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which had representatives of its Louisiana Egg Commission at the summit demonstrating the value of Louisiana eggs.

“Coordination of efforts is the key – whether it’s agriculture, nutrition or emergency response. We all benefit from coordination,” Robbins said.

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Contacts:
Pam Hodson
Steve Mullen  

Writer:
Tom Merrill

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