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Obesity in America: 5 Ways Companies Should Be Addressing the Health Crisis

It has been argued that sugar-sweetened beverages play a larger role in obesity, as compared to other foods. Explanations include the body’s metabolism of fructose, the rapid blood sugar spike we experience from refined sugar intake, and the less satiating nature of liquid calories (often leaving us susceptible to subsequent increased energy intake). The popularity of soda consumption and its ubiquitous, affordable presence – not to mention large portion sizes – only compound the problem.

One may be hard-pressed to find the nutritional benefits of soda, but soda alone is certainly not responsible for obesity. Obesity has a complex etiology and results from a myriad of factors – both internal and external. One can argue that ultimately, personal health comes down to individual responsibility. But (at least for many of us) our willpower leaves a lot to be desired – particularly amidst this temptation-filled, marketing-driven “obesogenic” environment.

Some commend Coca-Cola and other companies, regarding their efforts to recognize and address the modern obesity epidemic. Others argue that these efforts are just a public relations move to avoid larger policy changes. Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson issued this statement: “The soda industry is under siege, and for good reason. This new advertising campaign is just a damage control exercise, and not a meaningful contribution toward addressing obesity. What the industry is trying to do is forestall sensible policy approaches to reducing sugary drink consumption, including taxes, further exclusion from public facilities, and caps on serving sizes such as the measure proposed by Mayor Bloomberg.”

Soda, alcohol, and tobacco are all toxic to our health in excess – sugar is the only one of the three not regulated. As it is a free market, if food companies are going to contribute to the obesity epidemic, they might as well join in the fight against it. Even if it is just damage control, mindfulness and small changes (just as with any diet) can help.

What are ways in which corporations can help fight obesity?

1) Portion control

As Brian Wansink cleverly illustrates in Mindless Eating, we simply eat more when presented with more. Food companies can manufacture smaller portions – as many have already attempted, such as individual serving sizes or 100-calorie packs (not only of dessert items but also of almonds, hummus, etc.) and smaller-sized sodas.

2) Inform and educate

McDonald's menu calorie counts

Educate us so we have the power to make more informed decisions. Front-of-package calorie labeling is a step in the right direction, as is transparency as far as the ingredients. A more extreme approach could be explicit education through warning labels on the package, similar to cigarette warnings – i.e., if repeatedly consumed in excess, this product may increase your risk of weight gain, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, joint problems, erectile dysfunction, renal disease, increased hospitalizations, etc.

3) Market appropriately

Diet pepsi ad

Corporations can use their marketing prowess to promote positive change. Advertisements could portray soda as an occasional treat rather than a daily afterschool snack; actors in commercials can depict an awareness of energy balance and demonstrate restraint. Help us learn moderation. Companies can promote other aspects of a healthy lifestyle within product advertising, such as exercise, social relationships, caring families sharing meals, healthy food preparation, etc.

4) Healthier options

Healthy vending

Offer healthier substitutes and products and ensure they are readily available. Stock vending machines with better choices.

5) Give charitable contributions

Playground

...to childhood obesity prevention programs, nutrition and physical activity programs, nutrition, and food science research? Some may feel it is hypocritical for companies such as Coca Cola to sponsor the Olympics. Per the CSPI: “Big Soda gives generously to community groups, organizations of public officials, minority groups, and medical and health groups to influence policy positions and discourage criticism of the companies for undermining the health of communities. It often 'changes the conversation' by focusing on building playgrounds and encouraging physical activity.”

What are other ways in which corporations can help tackle obesity? WEIGH IN on your thoughts…

If corporations instill healthy change, it may even increase their bottom line, in improving healthcare costs and productivity of their own employees. Additionally, if consumers recognize that companies not only acknowledge the obesity epidemic, but also respect and care about their customers, brand image and loyalty will be enhanced. Isn’t that what corporations want?

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