Concerned with the rising number of obese residents across Los Angeles County, health officials on Thursday unveiled an ad campaign to encourage people to control their food portions.
Billboards and ads showing photographs of foods such as three slices of pizza versus two with calorie information already have rolled out at train stations and bus benches across the county. | See photo gallery.
Television, radio and social media ads will also promote the "Choose Health L.A" campaign with the message "Choose Less. Weigh Less." The goal is to make people think about the amount of calories they choose by, for example, comparing a large soda and fries to a smaller portion, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
"The goal of this campaign is to get people to start thinking about how much food they are consuming in each meal," Fielding said, "If we can get people to think about that and start eating less, or ordering smaller portions, then we will be on the right track."
The campaign was launched just as countywide adult obesity rates were released. Figures from 2011 show the number of obese people had increased 74 percent over the past 14 years.
The percentage of obese adults steadily expanded from 13.6 percent in 1997 to 23.6 percent in 2011.
Fielding said the ads were informational and in no way do they represent government telling people what they should eat or how much.
"This gives them guidance," Fielding said. "Does government have a role? Absolutely, but in the kinds of things we're doing. This information is empowering."
But the ads also come at a time when more people have questioned government's role in combating obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions.
Starting next year in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda ban will prohibit restaurants, carts and concessions at movie theaters and stadiums from selling sugary drinks in cups or containers larger than 16 ounces. The new law has branded Bloomberg the "nanny mayor" by some.
In California last year, a bill by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, required large chain restaurants to post calories on menus and menu boards.
Organizations that watch such policies say the choice of foods and the portions people eat are a matter of personal responsibility, not the government's business.
"The story of obesity and regulation policy is that there hasn't been any policy that has had an impact," said J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit supported by restaurants and food companies.
"There are two sets of policies, the carrot and the stick," Wilson said. "The carrot is when government incentivizes health by building bike paths. The stick is when they try to force us against our will. These have a tendency to not work."
Wilson said Los Angeles' "Choose Health L.A." campaign does lean more toward helping people make better decisions through personal responsibility, but he also questioned the need and the cost. The Department of Health spent $1 million on this portion of the "Choose Health L.A." campaign, with funding from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Community Transformation Grant.
"You need to know what's in your food to make good choices and I do sometimes feel it's a good idea to advertise how much," Wilson said. "But it does not take a Ph.D. in nutrition to know the difference between a banana and a banana split. You're not going to hear me say this is a terrible invasion of our privacy, but it's sort of like, really, do we need that poster to tell us this?"
Fielding agreed there is no easy way to combat obesity through one campaign because it is a complicated issue born of several factors: available food choices, environment, income, and even safety.
It took generations
"Just like with tobacco (prevention) there wasn't one approach that got us here," Fielding said. "We want people to change their perceptions of what in fact is good food and good portions."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the campaign was one of many initiatives planned to help residents make healthier choices, and that includes feeling safe enough in their neighborhoods and communities to walk or bike to work.
"We are working with key partners to enhance our neighborhoods so residents feel safe and comfortable walking, biking and taking public transit," he said. "Our aim is to give people access to healthy foods and beverages where they live, work and play."
Some residents, however, liked the idea of the ads. Chris Warmsley, an Inglewood resident and chef, said he has seen one of the billboards near Manchester and Prairie avenues. He said he has instilled good eating habits in his children, but he knows it's difficult for other parents.
"I'm a professional chef so I'm all for eating healthy, but a lot of single parents don't," Warmsley said. "And the schools have been hit so hard, we don't have kids learning to eat good food.
"The only thing about (advertising) portion control is that we've been so programmed to eat large portions that, when you slash their portions, they'll freak out."
Aubrey Kiley, a mother of two young children from Hawthorne, said she too liked the overall message.
"I think this should have been done a while ago - encouraging portion control," Kiley said. "Instead of eating just fruits and vegetables and meat, you can still eat what you want. Just less of it."
Other findings in the L.A. County data released Thursday found:
Among those aged 18 to 39 years, the obesity rate increased 104 percent between 1997 and 2011. For those 40 years and older the obesity rate increased 49 percent during the same time.
In 2011, the obesity rate was highest among Latinos (31.6 percent) and African- Americans (31 percent), intermediate among whites (18 percent) and lowest among Asians/Pacific Islanders (8.9 percent).
L.A. County residents with less formal education had higher rates of obesity: 32.3 percent among those with less than a high school education compared to 15.9 percent among those with a college degree.
Obesity rates were higher among people with lower household incomes: 30.2 percent among those with incomes below the federal poverty level compared with 19.9percent among those with incomes at 200 percent or above the federal poverty level.
The only good news within the data was that children in fifth, seventh and ninth grades showed a decline in obesity rates over the last several years, from 23.3 percent in 2005 to 22.4 percent in 2010.
Health officials remain concerned however, because obesity is a leading risk factor of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart problems. In L.A. County, the percentage of adults who had been diagnosed with diabetes was more than four times higher among those who were obese compared with those who were normal or underweight.
Staff writer Sandy Mazza contributed to this story.