The obesity challenge

by Keith Nunes
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To understand the challenge obesity presents to consumers, the public and private sectors, and to the food industry, it is helpful to look at the solutions being recommended by entities interested in solving what is increasingly being described as a global epidemic. Some of the proffered solutions include broad, government-sponsored public health initiatives, calorie counts on menus, taxes on products believed to contribute to obesity, and the wholesale remaking of school food service programs. As concern about obesity has grown, challenge has, in many ways, transformed from an individual’s health and wellness issue into characterizations of a societal enemy that must be defeated.

On a regional basis, metropolitan governments from New York and San Francisco are considering unique and sometimes controversial options. In New York, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene voted in late January to require restaurant chains in the city to display calorie information on their menus and menu boards.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, New York City Health Commissioner, specifically cited obesity as a prime reason for the effort.

"Obesity and diabetes are the only major health problems that are getting worse in New York City," he said. "Today, the Board of Health passed a regulation that will help New Yorkers make healthier choices about what to eat; living longer, healthier lives as a result."

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced in December he would attempt to impose a fee on retailers selling drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Mayor Newsom justified the proposal by saying it would help reduce obesity levels and the fees collected would go toward the expansion of a city-wide program called Shape Up San Francisco, an effort to educate consumers about opportunities for increased exercise and improving their diet.

On a broader scale, the United Kingdom’s Department of Health recently introduced a £372 million ($730 million) strategy to educate consumers about living a healthier lifestyle.

"Tackling obesity is the most significant public health and personal health challenge facing our society," said Alan Johnson, secretary of state for health. "The core of the problem is simple — we eat too much and we do too little exercise. The solution is more complex. From the nature of the food we eat, through to the way our children lead their lives — it is harder to avoid obesity in the modern environment.

"It is not the government’s role to hector or lecture people, but we do have a duty to support them in leading healthier lifestyles. This will only succeed if the problem is recognized, owned and addressed in every part of society."

The five primary elements of the U.K. strategy include the education of children about what contributes to a healthy lifestyle; promoting healthier food choices; incorporating exercise into consumers’ lives; creating incentives for better health; and personalized advice and support.

But Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of the Hartman Group, Inc., Bellevue, Wash., said despite these efforts, her group’s research shows they may not achieve the desired results.

In 2004, The Hartman Group published its report "Obesity in America: Understanding weight management from a consumer perspective." Among the report’s key findings were that consumers were ambivalent about how to appropriately assess and effectively manage their body weight; being somewhat overweight was seen as normal and the collective consumer sense of what constituted normal weight had crept upward; and while consumers demonstrated their awareness of the supposed connection between excess weight and health risks, most did not perceive themselves at risk.

Since the study’s publication in the spring of 2004 obesity has become a top-of-mind trend. Excess weight and its negative effects on individuals, families and the population as a whole are regularly discussed in the mass media. Entire industry segments, like some within the food sector, have shifted some of their focus toward helping consumers manage their weight. But in a recent conversation, Ms. Demeritt said the efforts have not changed consumer perception of their weight and health.

"It (the situation) has not changed really," she said. "The same underpinnings exist. People judge their weight from the perspective of their social network.

"Around them, however, some things have changed. Portion control, for example, is more available as 100-calorie packs have become more popular. So what consumers say is they love manufacturers for helping them, but they eat three packs every time they open the box."

Ms. Demeritt said an individual’s social network is critical to the issue of weight and health.

"People judge themselves by their network — People they see at work, in a book club, groups like that," she said. "There is a study about a group of nurses, each 25 to 75 lbs overweight. The individuals 25 lbs overweight in the group were seen as ideal by the group.

"The media puts models on display, but they are not considered real. People look at others in their social network and they want to be like that. In many ways, a social network plays a role in a person’s perception of their weight."

Ms. Demeritt noted that while some weight management systems have made it easy for consumers to figure out what to eat, based on a points system, for example, what has proven most effective are the communities that have emerged around the weight management systems.

"People don’t want an authority telling them what to do," she said. "They are looking for a peer they can relate with; someone they can talk to about being able to fit into a pair of jeans that don’t fit anymore."

Ms. Demeritt added that obesity is not driven by a lack of information. Information is available through numerous public and private channels, but companies focused on the issue of weight management need to consider how consumption habits have changed.

"The culture of consumption needs to be looked at," she said. "How people eat has changed dramatically. For example, many consumers no longer eat together and that changes what or how much they may eat.

"We keep hearing from restaurants that people want their food faster, they want a drive through option and to not eat in the store. Yes, it means they want convenience, but it also may mean they no longer want boundaries or norms to constrain them from what they want to enjoy."

The broad range of efforts being undertaken to address obesity underscores the complexity of the issue. There is no simple solution, because consumers react differently to the various strategies being put in place.

Ms. Demeritt said one consumer segment that responds consistently to advice about adopting a healthy lifestyle are consumers who are obese and have been told by a medical professional their life is in jeopardy due to the excess weight.

"That’s when the message gets through," she said. "Unfortunately, the goal is to prevent the problem from getting that far."

Putting obesity in perspective

LONDON — Once confined to high income countries, obesity is now as prevalent as malnutrition in developing countries. In a report about obesity, Datamonitor researched consumer efforts to eat healthier with rising obesity levels.

"Ultimately, food choice is determined by sensory attributes such as taste and pleasure, and consumers will not sacrifice these attributes in favor of nutritional goodness," said Michael Hughes, a consumer market analyst for Datamonitor. "Furthermore, changes in people’s lifestyles mean that they find it difficult to exercise on a daily basis. As a result, shoppers are consuming more bad nutrients and exercising less."

Datamonitor’s research indicated approximately 65% of Europeans and Americans made active attempts to eat healthier in 2005-2006. Rather than focusing on the elimination of "bad" nutrients in their diets, consumers also embraced the concept of positive nutrition; the focus on the inherently good content within food and beverages.

While consumers do not underestimate the importance of cutting down on fat, sugar and salt, they also believe a healthy diet involves the consumption of fresh food and beverages and eating from a diverse range of foods.

"Although consumers are moderating what they eat and drink with greater regularity, they still want to maintain a sense of normality when dieting," Mr. Hughes said. "Focusing on the good nutrients in food and drink makes dieting easier and less compromising."

Even though shoppers are making efforts to eat healthier, they are unwilling to sacrifice what Datamonitor describes as the "hedonistic attributes" associated with food, such as taste, pleasure and enjoyment. The attitude is driven, in part, by the belief healthy food tastes inferior. The point is relevant, according to Datamonitor, because as consumers are eating out with greater regularity, the desire to eat healthy is most likely to be compromised.

"More often than not, restaurants do not disclose the nutritional content of their food and drink," Mr. Hughes said. "This means that even if consumers do attempt to eat healthy, they are at risk of over indulging because of a lack of knowledge about food content. The reality however, is that when eating out, consumers view enjoyment as more of a priority than health."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, February 5, 2008, starting on Page 35. Click
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