Obesity: Why Consumers Can't Fight It



In previous posts about the reasons for our obesity crisis, I have introduced the restaurateurs and grocers who deliver our food along with the activists and researchers who advocate for better nutrition. My conclusion—using my gas/liquids/solids metaphor—is that the "solid" restaurateurs and grocers resist change and can't be counted on to drive the shift to healthier foods, while the gas-like activists advocate for the immediate restructuring of the way the food industry operates. Alas, the result is a form of trench warfare in which neither side has advanced viable solutions to the obesity dilemma.

Today we turn our attention to perhaps the biggest Wild Card in the obesity drama: the consumer. Consumers find themselves in a quandary. They are pilloried by the food industry for not taking personal responsibility for their eating choices, advocates and regulators decry their lack of compliance with nutrition education efforts such as the Food Pyramid guidelines, and four out of five consumers believe that their weight gain is a result of their own failure to eat less or exercise more.

Guess what happens when this crowd
looks a Monster Thickburger in the eyes? It's not pretty.

Conventional wisdom holds that consumers should act in a rational, disciplined manner. This is a false assumption. Consumers are not a homogeneous group like grocers, restaurateurs, or food activists are. They run the gamut from solid-like behavior (that ability to consistently say "no") to a more combustible gaseous state (feeling they must say "yes").

The most solid consumers are decisive and highly regimented. "Just do it" is their motto. Nonagenarian Jack LaLanne serves as the poster child for this kind of person. If everyone behaved this way, we would always be in total control ... no matter how large the portions we were confronted with.

In contrast, those who are more gas-like are flexible, less scheduled, unregimented, and generally less decisive. Following rules and guidelines proves futile. Guess what happens when this crowd looks a Monster Thickburger in the eyes? It's not pretty. They're hardwired for dietary failure.

The evidence supports that those who are less regimented are more weight-challenged:

Recent data from TNS Retail & Shopper confirmed that those in households where children had weight concerns demonstrated a lack of planning. They were less likely to make shopping lists, spent more time than intended in the grocery store, and purchased more products that they did not intend to.

• Myers-Briggs personality researchers have shown that those who are more goal-oriented stick to schedules like diets much more easily than those who prefer flexibility.

• My own analysis in writing the Consumer Conundrum chapter for Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat confirmed that somewhere between 25 percent and 33 percent of the population can walk their talk when it comes to healthier lifestyles. Which means the rest of us aren't drinking the (diet) Kool-Aid.

So when reports are issued highlighting that the majority of consumers fail to follow the Food Pyramid guidelines or that there has been virtually no change in fruit and vegetable consumption, we should not be surprised. Our behavioral schematics betray us.

And therein lies the consumer conundrum: that although many people desire to eat better, most are not wired to cope with the current food delivery system—the portions, prices, and practices—thus making it impossible to transition to healthier eating. Only the most Jack LaLanne-ish among us is fully equipped to either say no or to just eat the right-sized portions every time.

This reality runs counter to the current approach taken by regulators, health advocates, and activists that all consumers must follow prescribed set-in-stone eating formulas such as limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day or saturated fats to 7 percent of calorie intake. They continue to believe that by simply issuing the next set of rules, consumers will automatically follow along. But demanding that consumers change who they are is a dead-end street, as evidenced by our lack of progress.

This implies that comprehensive, permanent change must come from another source.

We've seen that the hardcore solids—restaurateurs and grocers—won't deliver us to the dietary Promised Land. Neither will the academics and activists. And now that we understand why consumers en masse can't be counted on to lead to radical change, who is left to fix this perplexing problem?

In the end, can those who actually make and market our foods be the saviors? Are they the Ones? Tune in next time.