Take the Offensive on Obesity

Who is more at fault for obesity, the advertising for McDonald's or the unbearable pressure kids feel from school, peers and parents?

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

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I recently spoke to the Institute of Food Technologists on the topic of obesity. It seems I have been to many conferences and meetings lately where the presenters made a compelling case that we are fat. At all these presentations, the message is the same: Food companies should make healthier products.

However, it seems consumers are more concerned about appearance and vanity than health when it comes to obesity. For example, Harry Balzer of NPD reports that, in 1985, 55 percent of consumers completely agreed with the statement: "People who are not overweight look a lot more attractive." In 2003, the number dropped to 24 percent. We make being overweight more acceptable with designer clothes in extra large sizes, prime time talk show hosts who are overweight, size-friendly clubs and resorts and, of course, political advocacy groups supporting the rights of overweight people.

First and foremost, obese people want tasty, convenient food as much as everyone else, and they will not likely sacrifice these attributes for food that may make them healthier. According to Linda Gilbert of Healthfocus, the number of people who agreed that they always or sometimes select food for health reasons went from an already whopping 90 percent in 1990 to 94 percent in 2002. But when asked if they agreed with the statement, "I rarely or never give up taste for health benefits," the number went from 33 percent in 1990 to 45 percent in 2002. We want to have our cake and we want to eat it too. But if we can't have both, we will eat the cake!

Obesity is an important and complex issue, and just focusing on food and overeating is too simple. What could be some other sources of obesity, besides eating too much?

How many of us have heard people say, "I gained five pounds when I stopped smoking." Haven't more people been quitting? So some of the weight gain may be associated with quitting cigarettes.

Many people believe they gain weight when under stress. Have Americans been under more stress each year? I think so. And a related job issue: Hasn't the American work week gotten longer each year? More time in the office means less time to exercise, more time sitting and likely more stress.

Kids are the biggest target of food industry critics (and rightly so). Don't kids have more homework today than in the past? Sitting at a desk instead of playing ball may help get them into college, but it also may be making kids fatter. Do you think today's kids are under more stress than kids of past generations? I feel sorry for kids today as they feel so much pressure to perform. Aren't eating disorders related to the stress of modern life on today's kids? Is the success of video games in any way related to kids not running and exercising as much?

Let's look even deeper. Has today's office security made it more difficult to walk up and down stairs in office buildings? Many buildings have locked stairways (except for emergency exits), which means you can't walk up one or two flights of stairs when moving between offices. How much body fat over the course of a year has been added to protect our buildings from terrorists?

This may sound silly, but maybe it all adds up. One estimate provided by Pepsi researchers showed that as little as 4 minutes less exercise every day could account for all the weight gain over a 10-year period for women. Making escalators illegal could make up that difference alone.

It seems to me the food industry has been very quiet on the issue of obesity and has taken a head-in-the-sand approach. It's like the food industry believes it is the sole cause of obesity in America and is pleading mea culpa.

People are likely eating more than they did in the past, and unfortunately this includes me. However, why is the food industry so willing to accept all the blame? Why aren't we blaming the stress, the tobacco, the escalators, the Gameboys and all the things that lead people to eat more or exercise less? Who is more at fault for obesity, the advertising for McDonald's or the unbearable pressure kids feel from school, peers and overly demanding and time-starved parents?

I don't know the answers but I do know the food industry has been a wimp on this issue. It seems like it can't jump through the hoops of the critics fast enough. I believe our food industry makes great foods that taste great and satisfy a wide assortment of needs and desires. Couldn't we defend it a little better?

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