Think Differently When Trying to Reduce Obesity, Experts Suggest
WASHINGTON — Targeting specific segments of the overweight and obese population may be more effective in taming the obesity epidemic than current “one-size-fits-all” approaches, several speakers said here Thursday.
“We really need to get a handle on everything people assume across all sectors,” Hank Cardello, MBA, director of the Food Policy Center at the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said at a briefing sponsored by the institute. “You can’t have just one message and expect every single consumer to understand.”
Panelists at the event discussed a survey of 2,000 consumers conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute. Data were collected using phone interviews and a questionnaire. Researchers collected respondents’ height and weight data, which were then used to segment them into one of four body mass index (BMI) categories. Healthy-weight participants were defined as those with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 (34.4% of respondents); somewhat overweight, 25.0 to 27.0 (12.2% of respondents); mostly overweight, 27.1 to 29.9 (14.5% of respondents); and obese, 30 and higher (22.6% of respondents). For each group, respondents’ answers were compared with the three other groups as well as the general population.
Healthy Eating a Lower Priority
Healthy eating was less of a priority for those in the obesity cohort, Cardello said. A total of 62% of obese respondents agreed with the statement, “I know I should eat healthier but I don’t,” compared with 41% of healthy-weight respondents. Exercise also was less of a priority; one-quarter of obese respondents said they didn’t exercise compared with 15% of healthy-weight participants.
Healthy-weight populations also said that consuming healthy, nutritious, better-for-you products was important, and 37% of that group said they often gave up taste for health benefits, compared with 30% of the obese group. “This is the first time we’re seeing that,” Cardello said. “It used to be taste, taste, taste.”
On the other hand, more obese participants agreed with the statement that, “Healthy food just doesn’t taste good,” he added. As to the types of “indulgent” foods each group ate, obese patients drank more soda and ate more packaged pastries, cookies, chips and pretzels, and ice cream than the healthy-weight group; however, both the obese and healthy-weight groups ate roughly as much chocolate candy as the general population.
Healthy-weight patients read nutrition labels more often than the obese participants, Cardello said. “The food industry will agree that providing information is important for transparency, but we have to step back and say that labeling will only take us so far.”
(l-r) Hank Cardello of the Hudson Institute, Tracey Massey of Mars Wrigley Confectionary, and William Dietz, MD, of George Washington University discuss food marketing to patients of varying weight groups. (Photo credit: Joyce Frieden)
Healthier Options on the Go
All four groups were looking for better, healthier on-the-go eating options. “[People were] unlikely to give up on soda or snacks, but they would like to see them in smaller portions — that’s a huge opportunity [for the food industry]; people are waiting for help,” said Cardello.
He listed several take-aways from the study:
- Traditional health messaging to obese patients “is not really an effective way to go, particularly since with their mindset and they way they’re purchasing, it’s not consistent with a one-size-fits-all message”
- Food manufacturers “need to remove calories from ‘indulgent’ products … They really contribute to overconsumption”
- “Stealth” food improvements — such as reducing calories in a product without advertising the change — may work well in the mostly overweight and obese populations, since they already have a perception that healthy food doesn’t taste good
- The “somewhat overweight” group understands the need for healthy eating, but requires more help to get there
- Food improvements need to be made without sacrificing taste
William Dietz, MD, PhD, director of George Washington University’s Sumner Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, cautioned the audience against jumping to conclusions. “I think we have to be careful not to interpret these data [as showing] that these choices are the personal responsibility of people with obesity. We don’t know the extent to which environmental [issues] drive those behaviors.”
He gave the example of consumers who bought food using federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. “SNAP is a ‘feast or famine’ kind of benefit,” Dietz said. “It’s good at the beginning of the month, and there’s no food left at the end of the month … Are these choices driven by ‘Now we can have these things [because] we had no food at the end?'” He added that research has found that people with obesity are more susceptible to advertising than their peers, and companies position products like soda very prominently at the beginning of the month.
Cardello agreed. “I think it’s clear that industry and the public health community have to do their part,” he said. “We don’t attribute blame to industry or regulators or consumers or to the public health community. We have a problem and we’re looking for solutions.”
Places that have had success in reducing obesity have used a multi-dimensional intervention, said Dietz. “We can’t think, ‘All we have to do is put an excise tax on soda and everything will be fine,’ or that we’ll [just] build a walking trail in the community.”
Food Industry Must Do Its Part
Tracey Massey, BSc, regional president for the Americas at the Mars Wrigley Confectionery, the world’s largest candy company, agreed that food manufacturers need to step up. Ten years ago, the company began putting the calorie counts of its products on the front of the package, because consumers aren’t likely to turn it over and look at the information on the back, she said.
A number of years ago, the company set a goal that all of its single-serving products had to be 250 calories or less. That has now been achieved. Mars Wrigley’s new goal is to keep half of its products at 200 calories or less.
The company now has 10 products on the market that have 100 calories, Massey said. Mars still sells some products with more than 250 calories, but these are “shareable” — cut in half, with a re-sealable package, so people can choose to either share with a friend or eat half now and half later.
But trying to make this kind of food sound more healthy doesn’t work, she said.
“Consumers don’t want to hear it’s better for you. You can’t say to them, ‘Oh, here’s a healthy M&M.’ They won’t eat it. So all you can do is provide them more choice,” Massey said. “We’ve been reducing saturated fat, and we’ve made particular advances in Twix, but I’d never say ‘less saturated fat’ on the label.”