Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

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Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950′s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

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  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

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If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.

Public Health Campaigns Tackling Childhood Obesity: The Bad vs. The Good

Last year, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta released a highly controversial anti-obesity ad campaign aimed at parents of overweight and obese children.  While the ads were meant to draw attention to the childhood obesity epidemic, their effectiveness was called into question by many parents and health experts, myself included.  The intentions of CHOA may have been good, but the campaign seemed much more likely to increase stigmatization against overweight children and make them feel ashamed of their bodies, rather than encourage healthy habits.

Here is an example of one of their ads, in case you missed it.

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In response to this campaign, Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research and weight stigma at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale stated , “Messages that focus on promoting specific health behaviors are likely to be more effective” than messages focused on weight.

Which is exactly what Contra Costa County is doing with their newly released ad campaign:

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For several reasons, I love this campaign.

First, as mentioned above, it focuses on a single health behavior, reducing children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

Second, it is clearly targeting juice ‘drinks’, as opposed to soda (which most parents know isn’t healthy).  Juice products, even those with added sugar and artificial sweeteners, have developed a health halo in America, thanks in part to some strategic marketing by the food and beverage industry. Sure, a small amount of 100% juice is fine for kids every once in awhile, but juice provides a high amount of calories packed into a small portion and lacks the fiber and nutrients that whole fruit provides.

I also like that the campaign mentions all of the issues associated with over-consumption of sugary drinks including cavities, weight gain, and chronic disease.

While the effectiveness of mass media public health campaigns varies, at least this sets a positive example for other organizations looking to develop something similar for their own communities.