Thursday, 20 January 2011

Controlling Obesity Means Controlling Our Drive to Make a Quick Buck

(First posted on my personal blog on Sept. 2, 2009, but the topic's relevancy is now a serious business  issue.)

Interesting clip on CNN re: who's to blame for rampant childhood obesity (300% increase since 1989): Obesity Epidemic and most recently a Globe and Mail article stating that the average Canadian 14 year old intakes not the recommended maximum of 1,500 mg of salt, but 4,130 mg!

While I normally restrict myself to marketing issues, allow me a rant on an issue that is related, but off my usual topic...

This epidemic of over-consumption is depressing, devastating to the health and emotional well-being of future generations (not to mention the current), spreading rapidly from the developed to developing world and is 100% preventable. Having worked with P&G to push both Pringles processed potato snacks ("Try eating just one!") and Sunny Delight (flavoured sugar-water) drinks in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, plus having lived in Mexico for several years and seeing childhood obesity EXPLODE there during that period, it's fairly clear what spurs the phenomenon. The usual list of blame:
  • Genes (can't be helped, and indeed it's been proven now that many people's systems are predisposed to weight gain, especially after they pass the body mass index 'tipping point')
  • Parents who choose the 'easy way out' and buy what's easy to facilitate busy lifestyles, or are lazy, or 'give in' to whiny kids' demands, or live in poor areas without access to fresh foods.
  • Computers/video games and lack of exercise (see parents above).
  • Food industry (I'll get to this).
  • School system that puts only easy-to-prepare foods on the cafeteria menu.
Interesting what's NOT on the list, and maybe it is time for us to take off the "Politically Correct" goggles we've all been wearing and begin to recognize that big businesses are successfully working the PC movement to their advantage:
  1. P&G's Dove 'feel good' campaign (begun by Ogilvy in Canada) for accepting/celebrating that the majority of us are now obese,
  2. For-profit firms' exploitation of human nature. More and more studies are proving us to be fundamentally addiction-prone, once sufficiently stimulated.
  3. The fact that there's a large proportion of humanity who just aren't all that well-educated or smart enough (a bell curve) to 'know better' and thus are easily taken advantage of.
Let me address the latter three points first. The tendency that we have as human beings to try to balance our need for self-esteem with a lack of ability to exercise control over our bodies' tendency to over-consume is at the heart of all three points:
  1. The Dove campaign is really a continuance of a trend that began with the ludicrous notion that slim models promote poor body image. 2,000 years ago Aphrodite was already the definition of ideal female body proportions and today's models are NOT tall and slim because that's who fashion designers/model agencies are choosing -- they are that way because better nutrition is producing taller people and the fashion industry continues to adhere to a ridiculous 'tradition' of producing ALL their samples in size "0" that fuller-figured (and increasingly taller) girls cannot fit into. (Yes, do the research.) It is NOT about the fashion industry ladies, a higher than ideal body fat index is simply NOT healthy -- period. Never was, never will be. (Here's a telling test: fill a backpack with the same weight you, or your loved one, is overweight by and walk a single block with it -- that's what your body has become used to carrying around every moment of the day. Quite the eye opener. No one would volunteer to carry that weight.)
  2. I'm not going to footnote all the recent research studies here (there are literally thousands both completed and underway), but it has turned out that humans have a hair-trigger for becoming addicted to things, whether you are a George Hamilton in love with sun-worshipping, or a teen trying desperately to be cool by holding a cigarette, or a bible-thumping mid-west Republican shouting about conservative values and addicted to Oxycontin (tens of thousands), or a loyal husband who finds himself spending hours on triple-X dot com, or a post-menopausal woman who is suddenly gaining weight but is unwilling to make calorie reductions -- we are all prone to getting 'hooked' on things quite easily and cannot 'will' ourselves to stop, despite knowing the risks. The immediate spike in the pleasure center of our brains far outweighs the intellectual calculation we make about long-term damage or risks.
  3. Obesity is far more prevalent among the poor and lower-educated, but there are plenty of wealthy and university-educated individuals who all share the same predilections -- consuming FAR too many calories for themselves and feeding their kids the same way, but explaining this away as a cultural tradition, or genetic tendency (maybe, but it's actually rare), or due to a lack of time, etc. The point is that when you have the education, the conceptual-understanding ability (some call this "IQ"), the environment (urban and non-poverty) and a culture (support of the news media and neighbors) that ALL combine to support the concept of maintaining a good diet and healthy body mass, your family is likely to be far lower on the weight scale than the average in rural or poor areas.
The facts are simple, as we learned with the large financial institutions who tried to increase profits by getting into hedge funds and high risk mortgages, left unregulated/uncontrolled, big corporations are not going to act morally or accountably. They will go after every possible profit-making business stream they can tap into, ethical or not. The aggressive young Brand Managers at many of these firms put their career advancement far ahead of concern for the greater good, perhaps understandably, and won't change unless their bosses, through corporate governance or government regulations, force them to do so. The same thing goes for school boards who, strapped for cash and efficiencies, welcome the products produced by these corporations.

Several of the most profitable, high margin businesses out there are:
  1. Producing packaged, flavoured, sweetened water in cans or frozen desserts.
  2. Producing processed starchy veggies like potatoes or rice into salty, deep-fried snacks.
  3. Selling fried hamburgers/chicken at break-even or loss-leading prices, but the accompanying fries and drinks at enormous margins.
It is NOT video games that are to blame, folks!  The rise of childhood obesity can be linked directly to the inroads made by Coke and Pepsi and their snack subsidiaries (and local firms mimicking their practices), to put salty, fatty snacks, frozen desserts and soda pop into every convenience store across the country.  Mexico is currently going through a virtually instantaneous explosion in obesity, especially amongst children due to the sudden distribution/availability of snack foods (Mexico has the world's highest per capita consumption of soda pop).  While internet cafes and inexpensive gaming devices are becoming more common in Mexico, the majority of people live at or below the poverty line -- there just isn't the inundation of video game couch-potato culture there that we see in developed countries, they can't afford it.

Even Germany, which lagged far behind the US in obesity rates for many years, now leads the EU due to the country's gradual adoption of American-style fast food and snacks. What else would contribute? Are the Germans suddenly consuming that much MORE schnitzel and beer? Certainly the gradual penetration of a less active lifestyle has contributed, but there has to have been an injection of more calories into their systems, versus their traditional habits, to cause such a massive shift.

And it turns out that it is NOT the fats we consume that trigger obesity, it is the carbohydrates (link): pasta, bread, potatoes, cereals, along with sugary drinks, desserts that make our bodies start retaining fat in our fat cells.

(An ironic, sad side bar: one of the fastest growing services at American theme parks is the rental of motorized, reinforced, electric carts to encourage more large folks to come visit and enjoy access to all areas of the park. They don't need to maintain a few of these carts for special needs individuals, each park now requires a fleet to meet demand.)

My point is simple, until someone exerts control over corporations they will continue to do all they can to profit from the weaker side of human nature, whether it is our desire to not miss the boat and 'get rich quick' by buying houses or Internet stocks, or our desire to buy pre-made 'convenience' foods made with the fat and sugar our bodies instinctively crave. No profit-focused industry is truly capable of 'self-regulation'.

It will not be until government fully acknowledges the real cost of allowing fast-food and 'convenience' foods to be sold without recognition of their long-term effects that society begins to turn the pressure back on all of us to adopt healthier diets, to pay a premium (not a discount!) on convenience foods (it's becoming cheaper to buy pre-prepared foods than cook from scratch), and acknowledge that there is nothing 'healthy', emotionally or physically, about "loving our bodies the way they are (have become)" if that means we're carrying around an unhealthy fat-to-weight-ratio (with my apologies to the Creatives at Ogilvy and Mather Canada).

I'm in no way against big business, I'm just against profit at the expense of the greater good. Better dietary/lifestyle education is a start, but it not going to significantly change the eating habits of those most at risk, who are already addicted to certain types of food and have no strong incentives to change their daily habits.

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