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According to a recent MSNBC article, Dr. Steven Spady says that “personal responsibility” is absent from the growing national debate on health reform. In the same article, Lisa Herrington, a former health industry administrator, says, “Seldom does anyone suggest how—or if—the individual’s role should be reformed.”
Of course, it would also seem that whenever the topic of healthcare reform comes up, so, too, does the topic of obesity. McClatchy newspapers conducted a poll with Ipsos in late July 2009 and found that “only 17% of those surveyed thought that obesity was a major problem.” The McClatchy article went on to say that the survey found 75% of Americans “think the most effective way to combat obesity is through education about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet.”
Why should this be news or come as a surprise to anyone by now?
What we learned five years ago, in 2004, and reported in Obesity in America: Understanding Weight Management from a Consumer Perspective, our landmark study of 5,000 American consumers, still applies today: An increase in knowledge and education regarding matters of health, weight and diet appear to have little impact on one’s own health and weight. While we’ve all watched the value of “helpful” educational information designed to aid the individual consumer skyrocket, we’ve also seen a related rise in obesity rates. Strangely, government programs continue to produce ever-more elaborate informative brochures and educational materials, as if somehow these were going to magically begin producing results.
Our research on individual practice and sentiment tells us the ideal solutions to the obesity dilemma may have little at all to do with individual people—and personal responsibility—and a heck of a lot more to do with the larger cultural framework within which we live our lives.
You’ve heard this from us before, but it bears repeating again and again, until it is clearly understood. We believe significant shifts in important dimensions of our eating culture (e.g., increased snacking frequency, the tendency toward eating alone, and the shifts in eating occasions) have contributed to much of our health and obesity problems.
It is not that consumers don’t want to eat healthy, they do; it’s just extremely hard to actually do so. In our report, Healthy Eating Trends 2009, we found that while most households aspire to eat healthy, a minority claim to do so consistently. A quarter (23%) of consumers believe their households always make healthy eating choices while very few (4%-8%) claim healthy eating is unimportant. The majority (69%) of households fall somewhere in between these extremes, reflecting a complex market driven by diverse households with occasion-specific needs and shopping/eating behaviors (Figure 1).
Once Again, Pointing the Finger of “Who to Blame”
To say that the problem of health reform and obesity in America is very complex would be a gross understatement. Yet, even today, we find media and others looking to affix blame for these problems. We know from our more than 15 years of research into consumers’ attitudes and behaviors regarding health and wellness and specifically, obesity, that if the finger of blame is going to be pointed anywhere, consumers basically say that it should be pointed directly back at them.
They don’t blame the problem of health and obesity on food manufacturers, supermarkets, restaurants or fast food chains. Most Americans still prefer to hold up the mantra of individual responsibility when it comes to explaining why things have gone “wrong” in their refrigerators, pantries, at their dining tables and with their waistlines.
This is not to imply that Americans are passive “victims” of industry tactics by any means. Everyday consumers are quite cynical primarily about the food and beverage industry’s marketing ploys, not about what it sells per se. With respect to the food and beverage manufacturers and other groups, we’ve found, again and again, that consumers resent stridently doctrinaire voices from elite, top-down institutions (academia, government regulatory agencies, public health agencies) telling them how they should eat. And they generally ignore them.
At the most basic, fundamental level, we suggest it is worth taking a step back and reflecting. In one way or another, we have all, as a society, been preoccupied with the problem of health care reform and in particular, obesity, for several decades. We have devoted significant percentages of our vast resources—natural as well as intellectual—to the study of solutions to these problems. Moreover, many of us have devoted much of our own lives to solving these problems. Yet, nothing, to date, seems to work.
And herein, once again, lies the most significant and important challenge of all, namely, how to change not individual behavior, but the parameters within which such behavior resides—how to change our culture.
This first-of-its-kind report put a human face on the obesity crisis. Its provocative insights into consumer explanations for the behaviors underlying obesity, weight management and healthy eating are still very relevant today.Learn more >>