Obesity Numbers are Rising, What are we going to do about it?
For two and a half days, I was lucky enough to be in a room with some of the best and brightest minds in research, public health, education, marketing, the food and beverage industry, and web technology all talking (very candidly) about the problem of obesity in America during DTC Perspectives’ first annual Marketing Disease Prevention in America (MDPA) conference in the lovely Atlanta, Georgia.
That DTC managed to get all of these groups in one room together, let alone have an honest conversation, was a fete unto itself.
I came to understand very quickly that public health/policy sector and the food, beverage and restaurant industries are kind of like the Jets and the Sharks in a much less musical yet equally entertaining adaptation of “West Side Story.” The food and bev industries are upset with the government for trying to regulate their business, and government/public health entities can’t stand that the food and bev industries are selling products that are slowly killing the American public, or at least making us very sick and very fat.
It is no exaggeration that there were thousands of ideas, notions, theories and hypothesis tossed around during this conference about the causes of the epidemic, how it got to this point and what can be done about it. So, to save time, here are the 10 most interesting thoughts I took away from this experience:
1. WE! ARE! FAT!: The most recent CDC study finds that approximately 72 million Americans are obese; as in a BMI of 30 or more. Furthermore, 1/3 of school-aged children are either overweight or obese, setting them up for chronic illnesses they will fight their entire lives.
2. This Isn’t New News: Literally hundreds of studies have well documented the rise in obesity in this country and around the world. Academia and public health have poked and prodded at this issue from just about every conceivable angle only to come up with, largely, the same conclusion: We consume far more and move far less than we should.
3. Being Fat is Expensive: Obesity now costs America $151.7 billion per year, according to Dr. Donald Hensrud from the Mayo Clinic. This figure includes both direct and indirect medical costs as well as productivity lost due to sickness caused by an unhealthy lifestyle. Just think about what we could do with an extra $151.7 billion lying around.
4. The food, beverage and restaurant industries are not (totally) to blame: These industries, just like every other industry in the country, are in the business of making a profit. They sell double stuffed Oreos and chili-lime flavored, MSG-laced fried potato skins (expiration date: 10/2040) because that is what the market demands. If we stopped buying and consuming these products and demanded higher quality food, chances are the businesses behind them would catch on pretty quickly.
5. But They (food and bev) are Not Helping: These corporations spend billions upon billions of dollars per year to convince us that drinking a Coke means living the American dream, or eating an Oreo is an essential part of childhood, or that stuffing yourself with chicken wings (very little actual chicken in there, by the way), beer and French fries is simply the only way to cheer for your favorite sports team. They would not be spending that kind of money if the marketing was not alarmingly convincing.
6. Marketing Deprivation is Not Easy: One of the goals of the conference was to brainstorm ways to sell weight loss and a healthy lifestyle to the American public. But, the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume every day. And that is hard! Good luck marketing that on a national scale and making it sound like fun.
7. The Most At-Risk Groups Are Minorities and Low-Income Households: Far and away, the highest rates of overweight and obesity occur in minority and low income households both in rural and urban settings. Consider the fact that some neighborhoods in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Detroit do not have a grocery store. These areas area called “food deserts” and the people who live in these areas have almost no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Nor are there always safe outdoor areas to be active in these neighborhoods, making it very difficult to lead any kind of a healthy, active life.
8. Children Are Affected, Too: The most recent CDC study found that 1/3 of school-aged children in the U.S. are either overweight or obese and cases of juvenile diabetes are climbing fast. Overweight and obese children are far more likely to become overweight or obese adults with all the chronic diseases that come with obesity (diabetes, heart disease and hypertension to name a few). As a result, this generation of children may not outlive their parents.
9. There Is No Easy Solution – With all of these working parts contributing to the obesity epidemic, the solution will come neither easily or quickly. As long as it is cheaper and easier to buy a calorie-laden fast food hamburger than fresh fruits and vegetables, the obesity epidemic will continue and thrive.
10. Conferences Like this are a Step in the Right Direction – In order to stop and reverse the epidemic, everyone from marketers to policy makers to public health experts and, most importantly, the consumer, must be committed to making responsible food and lifestyle choices. The first step is getting everyone in the same room.
The way I see it, the obesity epidemic stems from an attitude of demanding instant gratification and a society that makes it its business to invent short cuts at every turn.
Why make homemade mashed potatoes when you can buy a mix, add some butter and salt and call it done? Never mind you are eating a product that has almost no nutritional value whatsoever. As long as it is fast and easy, it’s done. The same can be said for any number of food products on the market today, instant oatmeal, for example is laden with added sugar, TV dinners, even the “Health Choice” variety are full of salt, preservatives, and meat that comes straight from industrial farms (don’t even get me started on mass-produced meat).
All these short cuts necessarily mean that we are consuming more and more products with considerably fewer nutritious benefits and eating less real food. You know; the stuff that comes right from the Earth that you prepare and cook. Yes it takes more time, to prepare these meals, but the nutritional value is simply unparalleled by anything the food industry can possibly give us. And the dirty little secret is: it can even be cheaper if do a little planning and don’t let it go to waste.
I echo the same thing that anyone who has studied this epidemic says. We need to eat real food and we need to move more and there is really no way around it.