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Food festival lightens up, and everybody benefits

My friends and colleagues in the Buffalo area have told me what a great annual event the Taste of Buffalo is. For more than 20 years, the festival -- among the largest in the United States -- has been a summertime staple, attracting more than 500,000 hungry Western New York residents and out-of-town visitors.

Those visitors have feasted on the likes of chicken wings, beef on weck, cannoli, pizza and other filling favorites. But while there is no doubt that Taste of Buffalo devotees have been loving the food, there is every reason to doubt it has been loving them back.

Delicious? Decidedly, is the consensus. Nutritious? Fuggedaboudit.

Until this year. The Taste of Buffalo has become the first food festival in the United States to require all participating restaurants to offer at least one healthful, low-fat, low-sodium menu selection. While a "delicious" food festival is great, one that is also "nutritious" is really something special.

Obesity is arguably the most grave and undeniably among the most poorly controlled public health threats of our time. Between 65 percent and 80 percent of American adults are overweight and obese. Obesity is a prime cause of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular diseases. These maladies are commonplace nationwide, and especially prevalent in the Buffalo Niagara region.

The number of children who are overweight has tripled over the past two decades. For that reason, what was called "adult onset diabetes" when I was in medical school has been renamed "type 2 diabetes," and is being seen more and more often in children under the age of 10. If current trends in childhood obesity continue, children born today may be part of the first generation in U.S. history to inherit a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

As a nation, we cannot allow this to happen. Which is why a food festival embracing healthful nutrition, along with culinary delight, is an encouraging sign. If even a fraction of those attending the Taste of Buffalo festival discovered that health and pleasure can converge on their plates, it's the start of a potentially important trend.

I commend the Taste of Buffalo organizers, the Independent Health Foundation and all of the restaurants involved for this homegrown initiative to improve health and wellness. The Independent Health Foundation's Healthy Options program should serve as a model to other communities.

We all want to enjoy the foods we love. But it's a win/win situation when those foods love us back -- by promoting, rather than threatening, our health and the health of our children.

Here's hoping that other food festivals across the country will consider following Buffalo Niagara's lead. When the recipe is right, it appears we can, indeed, have our cake and eat it, too!

David L. Katz, M.D., is adjunct associate professor in public health and director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, a medical consultant for ABC News and nutrition columnist for O, the Oprah Magazine.

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