Corporate Social Responsibility: The Obesity Epidemic

The facts are shocking.

In the U.S. more then 68% of adults are overweight, almost 40% meet the obesity criteria, and tragically over 33% of children & adolescents have these same conditions.

Being overweight and obese are the leading causes of life-shortening / hampering conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia and some cancers.

Diabetes alone (pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes) impacts roughly 114 million adults. To make this clear … more then half of American adults have either diabetes or pre-diabetes, and more then 1/3 of these adults are unaware they have the disease.

In addition to human suffering, diabetes impacts our healthcare costs to the tune of $245 Billion a year and growing. And The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Center For Public Health “Weighing Down America” study on the health and economic impact on obesity estimates the total direct and indirect costs of obesity and related diseases like diabetes to top $1.4 Trillion (8.2% of U.S. GDP)!

But this serious disease is manageable, in some cases reversible, and even preventable with the right social programs, public awareness and corporate responsibility.

So why is obesity, and specifically type 2 diabetes, so widespread?

We all know that the keys to controlling weight, and avoiding type 2 diabetes for most people, are eating healthy foods and exercising. But what gets much less attention is the importance of portion control; watching not only the quality but the quantity of food we consume each day.

The visionary Mayor Bloomberg took a stab at addressing this problem several years ago, trying to limit sugary soda sizes in NY, without success. He really cares about the public’s health, but underestimated the complexities of the laws, and American’s self-control when our expectation of portion size has gotten completely out of whack. And the power of food and beverage corporate influence and marketing deep pockets to do whatever it takes to deliver sales growth and shareholder “value”.

Talk to consumers who’ve settled here from other countries and they are aghast at the enormous serving size growth (4X larger than in the 1950’s) at all types of restaurants. And just look at the food porn advertising on TV … with the requisite money shots that generate happy endings at the cash register. Profits peak as the calories, sugars, fats, carbs and excess sodium silently destroy our bodies. Shameful.

Michael Milken, Chairman of the Milken Institute, has made obesity prevention a key initiative of his philanthropic organization, setting up an office in Washington D.C. to impact health policies that have a direct impact on developing healthier eating habits and education. With his focus on prevention, Milken sees it from both a human quality of life perspective, and of course from the bottom line of saving billions of dollars in healthcare expenditures. Those factors plus the resulting increases in workplace productivity will lead to a culture of healthier & more productive Americans.

Food companies need to take a more proactive role at being socially responsible, just as other industries have done. We know cigarettes cause cancer, so tobacco companies have major government regulations on how they are promoted, labeled, and sold. So why not the same for other major disease-causing products like our fast-food supply?

Quick service restaurants (QSR’s), where more than 34 percent of children eat fast-food on any given day, have become completely irresponsible in their efforts to be irresistible in their marketing practices. They are crossing the line with unhealthy products advertised in gynormous portions at seductive prices that lead to weight gain.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that many of their food items, setting off the dopamine pleasure sensors in our brains, are just plain bad for our bodies. Yet I’m not aware of any real info provided other then QSR’s posting “calories” without nutritional values unless you ask for a handout. And on these sheets do they provide total “nutritional” intake for a “4 for $5” meal, or do they expect customers to do the math on total calories, fats, carbs, sugars, sodium, serving size, etc. at the point of sale using a mobile app?

Many food industries, beverages for example, are indirectly addressing the chronic disease of obesity with public relations campaigns like BalanceUS.org. I’ve seen their TV messaging on local cable at very low levels, while promoting their main cash cows at probably 10x the reach and frequency to the general population on highly rated broadcast programming and in major events e.g. The SuperBowl. BalanceUS.org is a gratuitous public affairs campaign generating little awareness or impact on the general consumer. I challenge anyone to prove otherwise.

We have all kinds of policies, rules, guidelines, regulations, laws through our nation to protect its citizens from unknowingly harming themselves. It’s not just about making it harder to over-eat, like the Bloomberg initiative, but coming up with unique & clever ideas to incentivize healthier choices and motivate consumers to eat less. It’s truly a matter of a healthier longer life vs. the pain and suffering of a premature death. Is that worth the brief “satisfaction” of bags of cheap, greasy fast-food?

Some might argue moderation, and I’d be the first to agree as it’s hard to resist a double double animal style at IN-N-OUT BURGER now and again. But it’s just not that simple as food cravings are extremely complex. And unfortunately the media has profound influence on our daily eating habits. Why else would QSR’s alone spend over $4 Billion a year in national and franchise advertising? Big fat profits I would suspect. It’s greed at the expense of the public’s health.

Smart meal training needs to begin at a very young age. If parents and schools are motivated to live healthier lives (like former First Lady Michelle Obama initiated with her “Let’s Move” public health campaign), this can have a profound effect on the health and well being of kids that will continue into adulthood with their own families.

Food companies getting rich at the extreme detriment of their customer’s health is just plain irresponsible. And it’s going to take pressure, incentives and policies from all touch points to encourage and “role model” better eating habits … including the much overlooked portion size issue … which should be a very high social priority for the new administration. I’m not sure the President of the United States promoting the consumption of an entire bucket of KFC meets this criteria 🙂

This is not a partisan issue. Obesity is an equal opportunity silent killer among all Americans; young and old, rich and poor, White, Latino, Black, Asian American, LGBTQ. And where over-regulation has its pitfalls, healthy eating is an area that could use an injection of policies to reduce obesity and its associated illnesses in the U.S., and demonstrate leadership for the World where many countries are suffering the same fate.

“Perhaps it’s time for an entirely different approach, one that emphasizes collaboration with the food and restaurant industries that are in part responsible for putting food on dinner tables.” Journal of the American Medical AssociationDr. Jody Zylke and Dr. Howard Bauchner

The quantity of food we each consume is a critical factor leading to weight gain and metabolic syndromes like diabetes. Only through radical change in this behavior will we be able to curb obesity and its associated diseases. And only through aggressive initiatives in public health policy, corporate responsibility in the food & beverage industry, and personal responsibility through better education, will we be able to conquer this deadly epidemic in support of healthier lifestyles for all Americans.

In a country where a startling 20% of children go to bed hungry every night, a re-distribution of our food source to food-insecure households seems like a worthy win-win goal to shoot for as one idea to attack the obesity challenge, and a greater source of satisfaction for all. QSR’s and consumer packaged food companies can play an active role in this strategy of reducing portion size, giving to the underfed population, which would improve their corporate reputations and long-term bottom lines.

These alarming findings on obesity and diabetes are not “alternative facts”, but the hard core reality of the public health crisis that is growing in our country. Everyone needs to bear responsibility, and take bold actions with the strong support of the food business industries, for the health and well-being of future generations.

“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake. This isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved overnight, but with everyone working together, it can be solved. So, let’s move.” ~

 First Lady Michelle Obama

Mr. Goldman provides the following sources referenced in this piece: CDC, NIH, ADA, Forbes, Time Magazine, JAMA, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, Harvard School of Public Health, FeedingAmerica.org, Milken Institute, Lynda and Stewart Resnick Center for Public Health, Let's Move!
Steve Goldman
About the author: 

Steve Goldman is the President at World Wide Mind, a global creative communications firm. He’s held executive leadership roles with advertising, marketing and communications organizations such as BBDO and TBWA.  Mr. Goldman is a Member of the Advisory Board for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and has contributed several articles to Executive Vine.  You can follow Steve on LinkedIn and Twitter.