A recent article in the Daily News reports that Nestle SA and General Mills are pledging to cut sugar content in over 20 popular cereal brands by 24% and sodium by 12% by 2015. Both companies aim to increase whole grains and calcium in cereals as well. Meanwhile, in the U.S., these changes will have no effect. The cuts, which are estimated to affect 5.3 billion portions of cereal sold each year, are only being applied outside of North America. Somehow, the U.S. managed to get left out even though we have some of the highest obesity rates in the world.
The top five most popular food chains in the U.S. are Subway, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Burger King. That's tens of thousands of fast food restaurants throughout the U.S. In 2010, the World Health Organization estimated that there were over 42 million overweight children under the age of 5 worldwide. Obesity is estimated to be responsible for 5% to 10% of health care costs in the U.S. compared to 1% to 3% of costs in most countries. While a 2012 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that U.S. obesity rates have increased in the past decade by 4% to 5%, while they have effectively come to a halt in other countries like Korea and England.
Obesity is a complicated disease and by no means simply “a choice.” But there are things that we, as a society, can do to help reverse these trends. Increased portion size makes it difficult for parents to know how much to feed children and confuse children when they are at the important stages of learning to listen to their bodies to take cues on when they hungry. Adding insult to injury, companies cater to and capitalize on consumer weakness, rather than taking a stand for what is best for the consumer. Even the sugar regulation by Nestle and General Mills was described as responding to consumer desires rather than promoting healthier choices for ethical reasons. This trend creates a huge tax on our society, self-esteem and economy — through health care costs, the burden of rising rates of disease and the decrease of productivity due to shorter life-spans.
To me, this signals a failure of health education in the U.S. and a failure to stand up for other people. “It’s not my problem” doesn't carry much weight considering how these trends affect ALL of us. Based on my research experience in pediatrics and obesity prevention, confusion surrounding nutrition labels or unhealthy choices rarely signals a lack of interest — it often signals a lack of awareness. Mayor Bloomberg’s soda tax may not make a huge difference to some, but it is a significant step in government standing up for healthy choices. Regardless of political affiliation, I truly hope that the U.S. and the major corporations think more about their obligation to promote beneficial choices rather than contributing to public harm.