Eat More Fruit

Logical Obesity Solutions with Illogical Effects

The world abounds with logical obesity solutions that aren’t really solving anything. The time has come in he evolution of the obesity epidemic when just about everyone who is susceptible to the current conditions that foster obesity has developed it.

So naturally, policymakers are claiming that whatever policy they’ve championed has stopped the growth of the epidemic. The logic follows that if we work harder at what’s already being done, we can reverse the trend.

Here are three cherished and seemingly logical areas of focus.

  1. Eat More MilkMenu Labeling. The idea behind requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus was to “have a positive impact on public health by reducing the consumption of less-healthful foods.” It hasn’t worked out that way. A recent analysis of research to date concludes that “menu labeling with calories alone did not have the intended effect.” In fact, some studies suggested that men make worse choices, going for more calories for the money they have to spend. Now advocates for the policy are saying “menu labeling could spark change beyond the menu board,” while conceding that “menu labeling isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Better information is good to have, but it’s not moving the needle on obesity prevalence.
  2. Promoting Healthy Food. This option is popular with just about everybody. It’s appealing to single out good foods — yogurt, fruits, veggies — and tell people to eat more of them. Businesses that are selling those foods love it. It gives everyone something positive to talk about and it gives food marketers good ad copy. But studies have shown that it does nothing to prevent or reduce obesity. Eating more of anything means more calories in. It might seem obvious, but eating less of something else has to come into the picture.
  3. Personal Responsibility. This strategy is right up there with God, mother, and apple pie. The trouble is that the rising prevalence of obesity has not come from an abandonment of personal responsibility as a core American value. We’ve been clucking about the importance of personal responsibility all along the way. It has no effect, except to blame people with obesity for their problem, shame them into hiding, and isolate people from the support and care that might help us maximize health.
  4. Prevention. An ounce of prevention is held to be worth a pound of cure, so much of the effort to address obesity goes into prevention. But we have neither highly effective prevention strategies nor cures for obesity. In truth, prevention and treatment of obesity go together because children with obesity come from families with obesity. Without helping the adults who already have obesity, interventions have limited impact on their children. Better to acknowledge that obesity is a chronic disease, work to manage it, and look for better cures and prevention strategies.

There’s nothing wrong with menu labeling, healthy food, personal responsibility, or prevention. And logical problem solving is a great way to approach the challenge.

But we need a deeper base of understanding for the biology of obesity. That knowledge can give us logical options with a better chance of working. Then we need to test them rigorously and objectively.

Sounds good isn’t good enough.

Click here for a review of the evidence on menu labeling and here for a new commentary by advocates for it. Click here for more on promoting fruits and vegetables. Click here for an essay on personal responsibility in obesity. Click here for more on obesity prevention

Eat More Fruit, Victorian Railways Poster from the Boston Public Library / flickr

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