We Are What We Eat: Where Is America’s Leadership? – Brian Klepper

One of the attributes of a great image is its ability to convey vast amounts of information and meaning quickly and simply. Here’s a terrific example.

In one of his typically astute comments, Barry Carol alerted us to a wonderfully clever graphic by Wellington Gray – the image needs more space to be viewed properly than this blog allows, so you’ll have to click on the link – displaying the percentage of people older than 15 in different developed countries with a Body Mass Index greater than 30. In other words, the percentage of fat adults.

At 31% of our adult population, the US has the most obesity by far,
fully 20-25 percent higher than our closest competitors in the race to
lifestyle oblivion, Mexico and the UK. At the skinny end of the scale,
France, Austria and Italy are at 9%, and
Norway is at 8%. The ridiculously industrious Koreans and Japanese are
hovering around 3%, or about 1/10th of our obesity problem.

Of course the subtext of this graphic is that we can see immediately
who has an advantage or a disadvantage on cost, productivity and competitiveness in the increasingly global
marketplace. The US’ unbridled lust for poor food and inactivity, urged on by the industries that profit from those traits, will  translate to the
biggest costs and the lowest productivity, and these influences will
undermine our long term competitiveness. The Japanese and Koreans, who
take the term "lean" seriously, will whip our fat asses.

The obesity problem, like the health care problem, is a matter of
national will, policy and lobbying. As long as the agriculture and
junk food, prepared food and fast food sectors lobby unimpeded for tax subsidies
for low nutrition foods, open access for their advertising to our
children and murky information about what’s in the stuff we stuff down
our gullets, they’ll prosper and America will decline.

The rules that guide how businesses behave are decided in policy. Effecting change will require that our nation’s non-agriculture and non-food business leaders, our most influential
individuals, come together and collectively determine that change is necessary. They must decide that it is in their economic interests for American
workers to be healthy so they can be productive, and so that productivity can
translate to competitiveness.

As with health care reform, meaningful reform on behalf of America will require convergence with the expediencies of power. Under our current system, nothing else can accomplish the change we so desperately need.

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13 replies »

  1. JC Roberts,
    Check the date on that one. Those were the college days…but if you’re insinuating that I’m younger than you and actively interested/participating in this industry, then you are most likely correct.

  2. I can’t believe that no one has brought up the Farm Bill that is under current consideration in the House. Besides the huge economic impact this has ($286 billion) on everyone in this country including taxpayers, it will set farm policy in this country until 2013.
    Think about that – a bill that has huge sweeping impact on this country that only gets reexamined every 5 years.
    From what I have read, it is basically more of the same with some slight modifications. Basically, both Democrats and Republicans are at fault here since a number of representatives are looking to protect their district/state interests. Not a single issue is really solved including huge taxes on Americans for farm subsidies, continue to insist on automatic payments for corn, wheat, and soybean subsidies, and a failure to dramatically improve the quality of the American food supply.
    By the way, they also have failed to address the issue of biosecurity too. Considering how consolidated and centralized our food supply, it is pretty terrifying to think what would happen if the food supply was contaminated. An understaffed and neutered FDA would certainly be in no position to protect Americans.
    No wonder Congress only has an 11% approval rating which is an all-time low. I think people (regardless of political affiliation) realize that Congress has become a broken instrument of policy and badly needs reform.

  3. Aaron, I noticed on another site that you were thanking the people who brought the ” pizza and pop ” to a particular event you were involved in.

  4. What if we had “sophisticated behavioral change experts” helping to promote physical activity and nutrition? There’s the opportunity for leadership.

  5. I agree that personal responsibility is an important consideration, but what child, barraged by an unending flow of propaganda prepared by the most sophisticated behavioral change experts in the world, can resist and remain out of the cultural mainstream. My point, really, is that its a lopsided playing field, and that, at a minimum, we can balanced the odds a bit by not giving free rein to interests solely focused on the money.

  6. RW,
    I agree that legislating the volume or size of fast food is a foolish approach. Especially since the the unanimously agreed upon solution is to “eat healthier foods”, addressing the superfluous characteristics of fast food will clearly aid in the issue resolution. It IS a social issue. We DO need to put the responsibility on the person. But as Rob so adequately put, “Personal responsibility implies real choice.”
    If a person can only afford the cheapest of foods, are they making a choice to eat unhealthy foods or are they taking the only option available to them? We can declare that the person is responsible for their choices in a market that is transparent and fair. The market, with improperly placed subsidies isn’t entirely fair. People really do want high-nutrient food. Why else are farmer’s markets becoming increasingly popular? Let’s encourage the delivery of these foods to people rather than the delivery of low-nutrient food.

  7. I was once at an IOM meeting where the IOM rep basically suggested that there needed to be legislation limiting the size of the hamburgers that could be sold.
    Now in LA they are discussing limiting the number of “fast food” places.
    While I don’t at all discount the seriousness of the issue (and I like putting it into a national competition framework), these efforts suggest that we can’t trust people to make good personal choices. How many times on this site have we discussed putting the patient in more control and giving them more say on something as complex as healthcare, and yet we somehow can’t trust people to make smart choices about something as simple as eating healthy and exercising. I think this line of thinking is ludicrous.
    Yes we need better information and education. Yes we need leadership. Yes we need to address the economics of healthy food. But lets not forget about personal responsibility. This is a social issue. We can’t legislate our way to thinness.

  8. Rob is correct. My mother taught me when I was young that money isn’t everything, but it does give you choices. I think the problem is that too many ideologues believe the opposite, that choices will yield you more money. That remains unproven.

  9. Well said, Aaron. A rare clarity.
    Dire economic circumstances do not signify “choice.” They signify intentional duress. We keep a segment of the population intentionally poor – a bulwark against inflation – then blame them when all they can afford is crap. When their only form of choice is to get the biggest meal they can for the least money, because at least they feel power for that moment. When this circle of “choice” is an intentional lie, perpetuated by a marketing-infused society in which happiness is the only goal.
    Why else would they call it a “Happy Meal.”
    Personal responsibility implies real choice. For most of us, there is no real choice.

  10. Mike,
    I agree that choice and responsibility are a large part of this puzzle, but Brian points out how we are getting skewed information to make these choices; namely in the form of cost. If subsidies are provided on the least healthy of foods, the government is not so subtly telling people that they should be buying this subset of food. They are using cost as the incentive. And with so many who can’t even afford their health insurance, how can we expect those, who need the healthiest foods the most, to be able to afford the healtier and more expensive foods?

  11. Brian — While I don’t discount the impact of the fast food and soft drink industries on our waistlines, I think you miss one piece of the puzzle: choice and responsiblity. No one is forcing us and our kids to eat at MacDonalds or drink another Pepsi and we, as responsbile parents/gaurdians, aren’t working to make sure that our children are making the right choices.
    It reminds me of a conversation I had the other day following the school shooting in Cleveland. A co-worker was commenting that he didn’t know what we could do to protect our kids and maybe putting guns into schools was a good idea because it might be a deterrent. I was thinking “where we’re that kid’s parents in all this??” (keep in mind that story was closely followed by the story of the mother who bought her son his guns…).
    If we as parents and adults are not going to make the right choices and provide the right guidance, then we are going to end up fat, unproductive and deeply in debt for our health care.

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