Monday January 7, 2013

Everyone could use a little help keeping those New Year's resolutions to slim down. But if it means the government limiting junk food, the response is an overwhelming, "No."

Americans call obesity a national health crisis and blame too much screen time and cheap fast food for fueling it. But a new poll finds people are split on how much the government should do to help -- and most draw the line at attempts to force healthier eating.

A third of people say the government should be deeply involved in finding solutions to the epidemic. A similar proportion want it to play little or no role, and the rest are somewhere in the middle, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Require more physical activity in school, or provide nutritional guidelines to help people make better choices? Sure, 8 in 10 support those steps. Make restaurants post calorie counts on their menus, as the Food and Drug Administration is poised to do? Some 70 percent think it's a good idea.

Despite the severity of the problem, most of those surveyed say dealing with obesity is up to individuals. Just a third consider obesity a community problem that governments, schools, health care providers and the food industry should be involved in. Twelve percent said it will take work from both individuals and the community.

That finding highlights the dilemma facing public health experts: Societal changes in recent decades have helped spur growing waistlines, and now a third of U.S. children and teens and two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese.

Kristen Irace, North Adams Regional Hospital's clinical nutrition manager and a registered dietitian, said obesity is a byproduct of an individual's lifestyle.

"For people to lose weight and keep it off in the long run, they are going to have to adopt lifestyle changes that stay over the years," Irace said.

The biggest problem is a lack of exercise, Irace said.

At North Adams Regional Hospital, Irace said the approach to weight reduction includes working with individuals on a one-on-one basis to formulate a plan to achieve it.

Today, restaurants dot more street corners and malls, regular-sized portions are larger, and a fast-food meal can be cheaper than healthier fare. Not to mention electronic distractions that slightly more people surveyed blamed for obesity than fast food.

In the current environment, it's difficult to exercise that personal responsibility, said Jeff Levi of the nonprofit Trust for America's Health, which has closely tracked the rise in obesity.

"We need to create environments where the healthy choice becomes the easy choice, where it's possible for people to bear that responsibility," he said.

And when it comes to restricting what people can buy -- like New York City's recent ban of supersized sodas in restaurants -- three-quarters say, "No way." In the survey, nearly 6 in 10 people oppose taxes targeting unhealthy foods, known as soda taxes or fat taxes.

When asked, some Berkshire County residents also reflected their opinions on the issue.

Everett Kordana said "there is only so much you can regulate" when it comes to government rules to guide people's healthy eating choices. Colleen Murphy, of Pittsfield, agreed: "You can only do so much because personal choice comes along after that."

Sami Strout, a Pittsfield resident and also a registered nurse, said she believes nutritional awareness is key to a healthier lifestyle.

Fast food is easy, Strout said. "You drive up, get it. ... It would be nice if fast food included healthier ingredients and incorporated less preservatives."

Food is only part of the obesity equation; physical activity is key too. About 7 in 10 people said it was easy to find sidewalks or paths for jogging, walking or bike-riding. But 63 percent found it difficult to run errands or get around without a car, reinforcing a sedentary lifestyle.

The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted Nov. 21 through Dec. 14. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,011 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.