Obesity and peer pressure

by Allison Sebolt
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The answer to reducing obesity rates might be found through similar measures as those that helped society to finally quit smoking as much, The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., suggests.

For years there were public service announcements about the risks of smoking as well as increasing taxes and other such techniques to encourage people to quit smoking or to never begin at all. Yet The Hartman Group suggests in its recent white paper titled, "Understanding obesity: Beyond teaching, tinkering and blaming," it wasn’t until smoking became socially unacceptable that people really began to quit smoking.

In the same way, The Hartman Group suggests the most effective way to encourage people to eat less and manage their weight, thus reducing obesity levels, also will come through social sanctioning. The research group suggests a societal movement that deems unacceptable public snacking, eating at one’s desk at work and other such on-the-go eating practices will be effective in helping society lose and keep off extra pounds.

"It’s not so much that we should decry snacking as something ‘evil’ and try to ban snacking — that’s patently absurd," The Hartman Group said. "Instead, we believe the time has come to initiate a collective dialogue that causes us to take a hard, honest look at the nature and origins of our mindless, unnecessary (and largely invisible) eating practices."

The Hartman Group suggests practices such as removing all vending machines in schools and restricting eating to the cafeteria, encouraging businesses and public institutions to remove vending machines and stocked refrigerators from the workplace, creating a workplace culture that discourages employees from bringing in treats and leftovers, and rethinking the need for food served at meetings and conferences. Other tactics the research group suggests include establishing set schedules for meals within businesses and public institutions, working toward policies and values that encourage eating together both at home and in public, and embracing values that frown on solitary eating. The idea is to return to a mindset of scheduled, thoughtful, purposeful, routine, communal eating so individuals will be aware of how much they are eating.

"The rule of thumb is that when others are around we tend to eat less, and when we are eating alone we tend to eat much more," The Hartman Group said.

Likewise, Mintel International, Chicago, said more than 4 in 10 respondents to a survey place no limitations when eating at home, with 40% saying the same for when at a work function, 31% when at a friend’s house or party, and 34% when at a restaurant.

In perspective, The Hartman Group said recent "teach and tinker" tactics that have been used to help reduce obesity rates such as limiting junk food ads to children, labeling foods in chain restaurants, educating parents, promoting exercise, banning junk food in school, taxing fatty foods, and stopping subsidizing junk food are not having a direct impact on the biggest issue when it comes to obesity — people are simply eating too much.

Shelley Balanko, vice-president of ethnographic research with The Hartman Group, said it will take a cultural movement through which individuals will say it’s not appropriate to eat on the street, at the desk and in all the other places where it has become acceptable in our culture.

"When it comes to food and eating, it’s going to come down to a realization, probably at an individual level, that we are one of the few nations in the world who thinks it’s OK to eat publically," Ms. Balanko said.

The Hartman Group said sharing food in groups is important because it reinforces social bonds, values and norms, will lead to a regular, routine gathering of the group and provides reliable time for communication within the group. Distribution of shared foods in groups is important because it is a natural method of portion control, compulsive eating won’t happen when there is an audience, and the individual is accountable to the group for what they eat.

Consumers taking action

Mintel said the average American consumed about 2,173 calories per day in 1970, and that number increased to 2,749 by 2007, with the increase being the result of increases in calories from flour and added fats.

"Consumers are definitely concerned about weight management," Ms. Balanko said. "A lot of it, depending on your age, is either body-image related or health and wellness and longevity related."

As a whole, 62% of women who are watching their diet are doing so to lose weight as compared with 53% of men, Mintel said. On the other hand, 41% of men who are watching their diet are doing so to limit cholesterol compared with 33% of women. This suggests men tend to seek weight loss solutions out of concern about heart health while women do so in part for health reasons and partly to maintain a slim figure.

There are signs such a societal movement to look down upon mindless eating is beginning. Ms. Balanko said there is a trend toward more communal eating with consumers, especially younger ones, because they have a desire for sharing the eating experience with other people, and this group is eating less on their own. She said even some of those who live by themselves are inviting others over for dinner and having more pot lucks as a general trend. In addition, she said many health and wellness consumers are prioritizing slowing down and being more intentional about how they are eating and who they are eating with.

Mintel also found most Americans are cooking at home more than they did a year ago, with indications manufacturers of "better-for-you" prepared and portioned meals are benefiting from an increased interest in cooking at home as well as healthy eating.

"We are finding now more of a trend toward eating whole, real, fresh food as opposed to an over reliance on products that are overtly marketed as suitable to a weight management diet," Ms. Balanko said. "So consumers are going much more intuitive in their approach. They are trying to eat raw, fresh foods as much as possible and using those other branded or weight-management marketed foods as more of a band-aid, bridge or emergency as opposed to their primary vehicle for weight management."

The Hartman Group said by keeping eating occasions to only food made possible through cooking such raw, fresh ingredients, the potential for excess consumption of "invisible" calories is much less.

Ms. Balanko said food companies should focus on being food ingredient providers as opposed to solution providers. She said this would involve being more focused on providing the components of a healthy meal that will encourage consumers to continue to cook more.


Controlling portions

Mintel said the most successful pre-packaged portion meals are low-calorie, high-fiber or "natural." Ms. Balanko said consumers increasingly are viewing processed foods that are high in chemicals, additives and preservatives as bad for them as these foods are typically high in sugar and sodium and low in fiber. Such an ingredient combination may cause issues leading to weight management problems.

Overall, Mintel said it sees interest in portion-control packaging declining with only one in seven adults buying pre-measured packs. At that, the main reason consumers buy the pre-measured packs is convenience, with weight management coming in as the second most frequent reason. Of consumers who don’t buy 100-calorie packs, half said they simply aren’t interested. The cost discourages consumers, and a third of consumers said they would prefer to measure out their own snacks.

Mintel said a lack of understanding of ideal portion size, along with a tendency to not measure food before eating, plays a big role in what has caused Americans to gain weight and struggle to lose weight.

"The future is really going to go toward educating children," Ms. Balanko said. "I think we are already there, but I think it’s going to be more and more about providing kids with the knowledge and tools with which to create healthy diets."

She said she hopes to see a shift in food manufacturers providing more whole real foods and fewer foods marketed with obvious weight management claims.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 9, 2009, starting on Page 29. Click
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