“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, knew all too well about the power wholesome nourishment played in optimizing the years in our life and life in our years. However, in the age of Pericles, one could never predict the modern-day evolution of our food landscape, one overpowered by Big Food and misleading, persuasive marketing tactics. With the corporate dominance of Big Food and drastic, toxic alterations in our food landscape, these nutrients made for consumption are now doing less for our health and more to exacerbate our disordered consumption patterns. When food as a nutritious substance functioning to maintain life and spark growth is disguised as additive-laced, hyperpalatable junk, our food environment has diverted from sustenance to sickness. When glow-in-the-dark varieties line our grocery stores and fill the bellies of our youth, personal responsibility isn’t the only response to our culture’s desperate need for taste bud detoxification and rehabilitation.
As much as we would like to hide from the numbers, scientifically-backed data does not lie. According to the most recent 2015-2016 data on our nation’s obesity epidemic, obesity prevalence in the US was 39.8% which affected 93.3 million US adults. For children, obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12- to 19-year-olds. With these statistics, we cannot understate the role food plays in the American lifestyle and prevalence of chronic disease. From confusing food trends to the alluring promotion of unhealthy food items, the convergence of the two has lead to a noxious food landscape, expanding US girth and escalating the obesity epidemic. As stated by Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, “The US food system is egregiously terrible for human and planetary health. Today, only 10 percent of the grain grown in the US for domestic use is eaten directly by human beings while only 2 percent of farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables.” With a modern food era that devotes less farmland to fruits and vegetables and more time and energy marketing and stocking shelves with hyperpalatable and flavor-enhanced convenient foods, personal responsibility is but a piece of the obesity epidemic equation. As consumers become more involved in the food system process from field to fork, the influence of industry and policies in altering unhealthy dietary behaviors while improving public health is more prevalent than ever.
So how can government influence and public policy positively alter the trajectory of the US obesity epidemic while getting us back to wholesome, nourishing, and healthy food options? Prevention, taxes, and supermarket makeovers are but a few examples of how US culture can turn this health crisis around. For instance, Berkeley, California passed a soda tax that went into effect in March 2015. This such tax decreased consumption of sugar sweetened beverages by 21 percent with an increase in water consumption by 63 percent. Likewise, Mexico’s sale of sugar sweetened beverages fell by 9.7 percent. With other cities such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle and Boulder embracing the tax, soda taxes are slowly but surely sweeping across the country in an effort to reduce sugar sweetened beverage consumption. Collaboratively, supermarket makeovers could play a role in positively impacting both consumer supermarket experience and healthier product purchase. At a microscale level and as noted in the California Journal of Health Promotion, “Consumption of fresh, healthy, affordable foods could be improved by supporting existing retailers to expand their selection of healthy foods and promoting healthy eating at the neighborhood level.” As Jeff Dunn, former President of Coca-Cola North America, mentioned, utilizing marketing techniques common in the junk food business such as accessibility, affordability and availability can produce an uptick in healthier food product purchase in the grocery stores. Likewise, utilizing Big Food and Beverage’s monetary influence in the game could help diversify their product offerings by acquiring some of the smaller, healthier food companies in the marketplace. In combination with acquisition and prime grocery store real estate, these Big Food and Beverage companies can provide accessible, affordable, and healthier products for the consumer.
One example of Big Food that could make a lasting and vital impact on the food landscape is McDonald’s. McDonald’s represents a potent symbol of fast and convenient food consumption. As a leading food service retailer, Olympic sponsor (fuel for optimal athletic performance?), and familial favorite, there lies an opportunity for impactful and healthful change. With a global presence and ample consumer stomach space available, McDonald’s has the power and game-changing ability to redefine wholesomeness, nourishment and consumption through taste bud rehab and a “forks over knives” mindset. After McDonald’s offered fitness trackers in their Happy Meals back in 2016 with limited improvements in their menu offerings of juicy chicken nuggets, beef burgers smothered in chipotle barbecue sauce, and golden French fries, the notion of fitness served up with a side of fries is counterintuitive to optimal public health progression. However, with hopeful skepticism, I am invigorated by the expanded partnership between the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and McDonald’s that occurred earlier this year. McDonald’s has vowed to market healthier products and use fewer artificial ingredients. This decision by McDonald’s is a move in the right direction for creating food environments that nourish, satiate and energize humans that consume such food products. Food is not meant to deplete or minimize longevity but rather provide our bodies with the proper nourishment to live vitally important, healthful, and sustainable lives. These significant partnerships play a role in mitigating chronic disease risk and prevalence. Now, if only a side of fruit were the default in Happy Meals.
Public health policy and program implementation are both potent backbones for the improvement of population and global health and well-being. Although the progression may be frustrating and slow, we continue to head in the right direction. In collaboration with public policy and program implementation is the relevance of the human voice. We, as the human race, play a pivotal role in the public health policies and programs being implemented across the globe. Just as we have seen with the soda tax showing up on voter ballots, humans play a vital role in positively altering our food landscape and associated product purchase. With Big Food and Beverage being driven by dollars and revenue, we have more weight in what products we want to see on our grocery store shelves. We must never let our voice be muffled by the sound of empty chip bags and candy wrappers. With public policy and human voice, we can do all things. Here’s to a healthy, well-lived life.
Best in health and happiness,
Colleen M. Faltus, MS, CPT
Corporate Well-being Program Manager