Focused Conversation Behind the Glass

Obesity Prevention Progress in Focus Groups

The results are in. It looks like we’ve got a winner. And that winner is the sweeping regulation of food marketing in Chile for obesity prevention. A new study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity just came out to prove the point. The study findings “were overwhelmingly positive,” says UNC-Chapel Hill in a press release. Co-author Lindsey Smith Taillie explains the good news:

This study shows that regulations really change how mothers think about and purchase food for their children.

Nine Focus Groups with Mothers

However, it’s worth noting that all this excitement comes from only nine focus groups with mothers of young children. Of course, the conclusions in the journal weren’t quite so bold:

This information contributes to better understand how regulatory actions may influence people’s consumer behaviors.

In fact, this study is doesn’t tell us much by itself. If we had real quantitative outcomes, it might be a useful tool for making sense of them. But focus groups are no way to measure success. They are qualitative, not quantitative.

For a measure of success, we need to look at hard outcomes. Are we having an impact on obesity? Not yet. Obesity prevalence is still growing in Chile. Of course, defenders of this strategy say it’s too soon to see an effect. Without a doubt, they’re right. These things take time.

But they’re also wrong to proclaim success based on a few focus groups. Even behavior changes are not good enough. What we need is to pay attention to hard, measured outcomes on health status. What is the effect on obesity? That’s the critical question.

Balancing Advocacy and Objectivity

In the realm of health, nutrition, and obesity policy, we have a serious problem balancing advocacy with objectivity. As a result, “the current approach to obesity prevention is failing.” Those are not our words, they are the words of the Lancet Commission on Obesity.

We humbly suggest that a bigger dose of objectivity is necessary. Effective obesity prevention strategies are essential for public health. But if we persist in focusing on flimsy methods for measuring success – like focus groups and surrogate behavior measures – we will continue to see very little progress. Advocacy without objectivity is a recipe for failure.

You can bet that food companies do not rely on focus groups to tally up their sales results. Public health should be just as disciplined and demand real results. Sounds good is not good enough.

Click here for the study and here for the press release. For further perspective, click here.

Focused Conversation Behind the Glass, photograph © brookpeterson / flickr

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February 24, 2019