From Fat Nation to Fit Nation

To fight obesity, the government should boost health education and help shield kids from junk food. And corporate support is needed, too

By Pallavi Gogoi

Americans have always taken pride in the U.S. style of capitalism, with its laser-like focus on growth. And rightly so. Free markets have fueled an economic performance that's the envy of the world.

Same goes for the food industry. With innovations such as white flour, packaged cereals, instant coffee, fast-food restaurants, and microwavable meals, the sector has prospered while providing the public with an incredible array of choices.

But somewhere along the way, the industry's quest for profits bumped up against issues of public health. It wasn't always this way. Early in the 20th century, food outfits worked hand in hand with nutritionists, innovating to provide people with nourishment that was fortified with vitamins and minerals when they needed it. But as early as a 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition & Health, nutrition experts and cardiologists found that overconsumption of calories was leading to coronary heart disease.


 Eight years later, when the government came out with dietary goals to reduce consumption of fat, sugar, and cholesterol, an uproar came from the meat, sugar, and egg industries, arguing that Uncle Sam was telling people its products were bad. So the goals were revised -- and blunted. "You had the [greatest] advance in nutrition combined with the biggest failure in nutrition policies," says James E. Tillotson, professor of food policy and international business at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University.

Today, over 170,000 fast-food restaurants, 3 million soft-drink vending machines, and thousands of convenience stores with rows of snacks ensure that Americans are never more than a car ride from food. But not only has the nutrition content of readily available food worsened, people are eating more and more.

A study documenting how eating habits changed from 1971 to 2000 by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that over that 29-year period, women's average caloric intake jumped from 1,542 calories per day to 1,877, and men consumed 2,618 calories a day in 2000, up from 2,450 in 1971. That's well above government recommendations for sedentary people: 1,600 calories a day for women and 2,200 for men. Add in the inactive lifestyles very common today, and you have the root causes of the obesity epidemic.

Clearly, something must be done. But what? Here are some suggestions to government, corporations, and society at large:

Improve education.

The government launched a national advertising campaign in March, 2004, to encourage Americans to take small, achievable actions toward weight loss, such as walking up a flight or two of stairs rather than taking the elevator, and snacking on fruits and vegetables rather than candy and sweets.

That's a good first step -- but not enough. The government is relying on media donations for its ad campaign, which at $25 million in its first four months, have been more than for similar past efforts such as ads against drugs and drunk driving. But it's still dwarfed by what food and beverage giants spend on ads.

The government needs a richer marketing campaign that reaches out to communities and across all demographics. The message should be simple: For example, a person can gain one pound in a little over two weeks from eating an extra 250 calories a day, which is what you get from munching just two chocolate-covered Oreo cookies.

Rid public schools of junk food and fund stronger physical education programs.

This is a no-brainer. Almost all school districts in the country have exclusive vending contracts with big beverage producers that help pay for computers and sports programs. One study found that of the snacks sold in school vending machines, candy (42%), chips (25%), and sweet baked goods (13%) accounted for 80% of the options.

While some school districts have banned sugary soda and starchy munchies, most schools are choosing to hold onto their contracts with vendors because education funding is so tight. But schools will be encouraged to learn that healthier fare could also translate to better funding. In January, 2003, San Francisco decided to rid its 114 public schools of junk food, a decision that the district feared would cost its nutrition budget $500,000. However, children happily gorged on the healthier sandwiches and salads that were offered in the 2003-04 school year, which reduced the nutrition department's budget deficit by $700,000. Still, federal and state governments should find ways to help make up for any shortfalls, and districts should encourage more nutritious offerings.

Obesity is a disease. Label it as such.

U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has called obesity a "health crisis" and in July announced a new Medicare coverage policy that would remove many barriers to treating obesity. But Thompson has shied away from calling obesity what it is in the minds of many experts -- a disease. Doing so would pave the way for insurance coverage of weight-loss therapy and behavioral and psychiatric counseling. It would also encourage doctors to measure body mass index as part of regular health screening and start treatment of overweight people earlier.

Food companies should pledge to develop healthier food with better labels.

Last December, the federal government recommended changes in labeling laws to help consumers choose healthier diets. But one look at the big brand offerings from Kraft (KFT ), America's largest food manufacturer, tells a different story. Kraft's most well-known offerings include Kool-Aid, Kraft cheese, Philadelphia cream cheese, Miracle Whip, Oreos, and Chips Ahoy! cookies. It's hard to find any items in that lineup that are healthy.

Granted, if consumers demand these foods, the producers will supply them. But outfits such as Kraft can and must do better to provide healthier choices because demand is growing for them, too. On Oct. 6, 2004, Kraft said its nutrition labels would list the total number of servings on its smaller-size packages of Ritz chips, Planters nuts, and Nabisco cookies. That's a start.

Restrict advertising to children of sugar- and fat-laden foods.

A multitude of studies since the 1970s show children under age 8, and in some cases under age 12, don't understand that commercials are designed to sell products. They associate it with entertainment. Yet, more than half of all food advertising is targeted at children, and why not -- kids under 12 spend $25 billion annually and may influence $200 billion of spending per year, according to marketing surveys.

One study of U.S. food advertising during 52.5 hours of Saturday morning children's programming found 564 such pitches, which occur at the rate of 11 (of 19 commercials) per hour. Of these ads, 246, or 44%, promoted candy, soft drinks, chips, cakes, cookies, and pastries. Obviously, banning such ads may raise freedom-of-speech issues. But the parallels are clear between junk-food pitches and cigarette commercials, which have been restricted.

The gap between good business and good nutrition doesn't have to be a chasm. It's in the long-term interests of foodmakers to recognize that they should be on the right side of this debate -- obesity ultimately threatens their customer base, and a healthier consumer makes for a healthier nation.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Thane Peterson

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