October 11, 2015

A Sensible Set Of Solutions To The Obesity Crisis

As those who have read this blog know, I have been a stronger believer in attacking the obesity issue systemically, rather than expecting individuals to accept personal responsibility in an environment that is extremely hostile to healthy eating habits.

The best book I have read on this subject was published recently. It is entitled Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s Making America Fat. The co-authors are Hank Cardello, the CEO of 27degreesNorth, a North Carolina company, and Doug Garr, an author. Cardello and Garr make several common-sense points:

  • Expecting individuals to alter eating habits away from abundant, attractive “junk food” is a losing proposition. The best solution to the obesity problem is to make junk food healthier. There is a lot of innovation already in this space, and it needs to be accelerated and copied by all the food producers.
  • To make junk food healthier, the food production companies, retail grocers, restaurants, and food service providers need to be able to sustain or grow profits in the process.
  • Government’s best role is to convene the stakeholders who can make this happen, and to set goals, not to ban specific foods or ingredients.
  • This transition to healthier foods is more likely to happen if it is done quietly, without a lot of fanfare. They describe a series of ideas in a brilliant chapter entitled “Stealth Health.”
  • Food companies, grocers, and restaurants need to gravitate toward business models in which they make more money from selling smaller sizes and portions of everything. There is a potentially successful model in growing profit by selling less and charging more, but most food purveyors are simply afraid to try it.

I would add one other suggestion. While the federal government cannot overhaul its current agricultural subsidy program overnight, and subsidize fruits and vegetables more than it does grains and sugars, it can eliminate the restrictions on ancillary fruit and vegetable production by those receiving the other subsidies. Government can also encourage individuals and small groups to produce their own organic fruits and vegetables in individual and community gardens, and can create conditions in which farmers markets can operate in areas that do not have supermarkets or other retail grocery facilities that sell fruits and vegetables.

I believe that the paradox of culture change is that it proceeds fastest and most reliably when it is done under the radar screen. Big, splashy programs draw big, splashy resistance, and end up slowing down or getting detoured altogether. Small, more gradual, less visible programs proceed unimpeded and draw less resistance.

I also believe that culture change is more accepted when choice remains, even if the choice is skewed by price, convenience, or social norms toward the new, rather than the old, behavior. Using crude devices to ban choice, like banning cupcakes in schools, is ultimately going to be counterproductive. Shrinking the size of cupcakes, making them healthier, and restricting the availability over time are more likely to be successful and to engender less opposition. In fact, we can turn a challenge into an opportunity by having schools, food and beverage parents, and students engage in competitions to produce the healthiest and tastiest desserts and snacks, rather than treating the food and beverage providers as enemies of the people.

In essence, we should draw upon our long-standing tendencies to innovate, to improve the quality and convenience of our lives, and to make eating a pleasureful experience, rather than to throw these benefits out, to improve health.