6.4 trillion reasons why obesity is on the wane
What’s the best strategy mix of regulation and cultural changes to trim our bulging waistlines?


Article Highlights

  • First Lady Michelle Obama's Partnership for a Healthier America set a goal of removing 1 trillion calories from the US marketplace by 2012.

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  • Companies were able to reduce calories by reformulating and cutting portion sizes.

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  • Does the success of the calorie reduction program prove that legislation is more effective than self-regulation?

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Today’s announcement by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that major food companies have over delivered in their pledge to cut trillions of calories from the American marketplace opens the door to a provocative rethink on the obesity problem.

Four years ago, representatives from the country’s biggest food and beverage companies got together under the moniker of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation to discuss what they could do to curb the country’s collective appetite. Of the 40 companies that founded the HWCF, 16, including General Mills, Campbell Soup, ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Hershey, took the pledge—accounting for 36 percent of the calories in all packaged foods and drinks sold in the US.

Teaming with RWFJ and First Lady Michelle Obama‘s Partnership for a Healthier America, they set a goal of removing one trillion calories from the US marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. They hit the mark last year and today the coalition announced it had topped the 2015 pledge by more than 400 percent, or about 78 calories per person per day.

The companies were able to reduce calories by reformulating and cutting portion sizes of some of the country’s best-known cereals, soups and snack food brands, including Hershey’s Miniatures, Coca-Cola Zero, Pepsi Next, Special K Cracker Chips, Keebler Mini Fudge Stripes and Ball Park Lean Beef Franks.

“This is good for the American people by helping to reduce the obesity epidemic,” said Dr. James Marks, senior vice president and director of the health group at RWJF.

Some of the drop in calorie consumption is part of a developing trend, as Americans have gradually turned around the superliner of obesity in the past few years. After years of steady increases, calorie consumption has begun dropping nationwide. A CDC study released in December 2012 showed obesity declining in 2-4 year olds from poor families. Targeted studies, like one in Los Angeles by the CDC released last February, indicated the decline had begun in 2010.

The food industry saw an opportunity to attach itself to a growing trend toward healthier foods, Marks said. The result was that the more proactive companies gained market share and increased profits — “the dynamics of the marketplace,” he said.

Is regulation the answer?

The success of the campaign renews the debate over whether legislation or self-regulation and behavioral modification are more effective in battling what many health experts say is an epidemic. The HWCF pledge is the centerpiece of a raft of corporate based initiatives launched in recent years as obesity rates soared and company’s came under attack for producing more and more processed foods. In recent years, food and beverage companies have added many more nutritious alternatives and become leaders in the movement for ‘food transparency,’ and the largest companies have voluntarily reduced food ads on TV aimed at young children.

According to a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, economists monitoring the beverage industry’s promise to self-regulate and get sodas and other sugary drinks out of schools found that companies shipped 90% fewer calories to schools in 2010, compared with 2004, and reduced shipments of full-calorie sodas by 97%.

Despite the HWCF success story, some health advocates are not convinced that self-regulation or calorie reduction alone will make enough headway to change America’s overweight profile.

“Reducing calories sold is not the same as improving the overall quality of foods and the diet. The evidence is overwhelming that good foods making up good diets can exert an enormous influence on health,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.

“If a reduction in calories sold and consumed is joined with improvements in nutritional quality, and both trends are sustained, the public health will certainly improve. I am hopeful that will occur, but we are not there yet,” he noted.

Deborah Cohen, a scientist at the Rand Corporation and author of the forthcoming book A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic and How We Can End It, argues forcefully that only legislation can make a critical difference. ‘Education can help, but what’s really needed is regulation—for example, limits on marketing that caters to our addiction to sugar and fat,” she writes.

But other experts are unconvinced, particularly when it comes to ‘fat taxes’. According to a Yale and Emory research team, “evidence suggests caution in enacting sugar-sweetened beverage taxation legislation with a core purpose of obesity reduction.” Another study from the University of California San Diego found that soda bans might even lead to more consumption, not less.

Geoffrey Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine is less than convinced.” The powerful societal and cultural changes underlying the obesity epidemic will not be reversed by simplistic regulatory top-down actions,” he writes in a recent article on Forbes. “Solutions will need to emerge from an approach that acknowledges the complexity of the phenomenon and how integrated it is in “the way we live now,” at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Short of a pharmacologic fix, solutions to the obesity problem are likely to be multi-faceted, gradual, and to involve changes to fundamental aspects of the way we live.”

In that context, today’s announcement that Americans are consuming less calories comes as hopeful news.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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