To combat obesity and improve America’s health, change the food industry
More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years. For the first time since the Civil War, Americans’ life expectancy may be declining. These facts paint a depressing, and by now familiar, picture.
After decades of failed attempts to convince individuals to make healthier eating choices, it is evident that reducing obesity will require changes in the food industry. Some recent initiatives undertaken by the Obama administration and the Food and Drug Administration will try to contribute to this effort by changing the way people think about food.
Forcing the Industry to Change
Many cities and states have taken the initiative in the fight against obesity by passing laws which put pressure on companies to make their food healthier. New York was the first major city to order a trans-fat ban in its restaurants, after a failed public education campaign. Other cities and states have followed suit and many are now also considering soda taxes and calling for reductions in salt content.
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the HPR, “You simply can’t do enough education to begin to compete with the food industry. We need to change the fundamental drivers of the obesity problem such as food marketing and the cost and content of food.” Local initiatives have been effective so far and have also had some positive unintended consequences: after facing trans-fat bans in major cities, nearly all fast food chains have removed trans fats from their national products. When faced with restrictions in large markets, it is often more efficient for companies to implement changes across the board.
But the most effective way to force the industry to change may be to create federal laws similar to those passed by lower levels of government. The food lobby, however, stands in the way. As Brownell explained, “The tobacco experience might be very informative here. The federal government had its hands tied because of lobbying by tobacco companies, and early on real action took place in cities and states.” But, she continued, “once enough victories occurred there, the federal government had cover and was able to take action.” Food companies will only change “if there is a threat of national government action or if these companies have to make changes for public relations reasons,” said Brownell.
Mobilizing the Public
The latter strategy is also being explored. The Obama administration has made fighting obesity a priority, with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign encouraging young people to exercise. The First Lady has worked with the FDA to increase public awareness, and a major focus has been nutritional labeling.
Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the FDA, explained in an interview with the HPR that the FDA “has partnered with the First Lady … to make sure nutrition labeling is accurate and informative for people to rely on and make healthy choices in their day-to-day lives.” But she also acknowledged that even with this improved information available, consumers may not necessarily follow it. “With a busy lifestyle, it is difficult to spend the necessary energy and time to really comprehend food labels,” DeLancey said.
While improved food labels and the First Lady’s information campaign are potentially parts of the solution, an important—and often overlooked—step in the fight against obesity is getting the public to understand how much power the food industry has. For example, Pepsi recently announced that it will remove all sugared beverages from secondary schools in the United States. While this is a welcome move, Brownell cautioned that we have to make sure companies “don’t simply take their marketing muscle and apply it elsewhere like the Internet or store displays through which they can still encourage children to drink sugared beverages.” In order to ensure that companies such as Pepsi make and market healthier products, the public will have to confront them head-on and pressure them to take the correct action.
With the support of the Obama administration, the fight against the obesity epidemic is making strides. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that continued progress depends on changing the culture of food in the United States. As Brownell concluded, “We need to create the public sentiment to encourage change and then force companies to change.”
Neil Patel ‘13 is the Graphics Editor.