How Would You Influence People To 'Eat Less'?

During the short question-and-answer period that followed the press conference announcing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in Washington, D.C., yesterday, a woman wanted to know why the guidelines don't directly suggest that people should eat less meat. That's what they seemed to be saying; why not say it directly?

There seemed to be a lot of squirming on stage. The response was that the meat and dairy guidelines do suggest that people eat more poultry and fish. Then there was some mumbo-jumbo about the "ability to craft a pattern ... without focus on specific foods that should be eliminated."

Isn't this a bit like suggesting to someone who's drinking too much wine that she should drink more water? True as that may be, it ignores the real problem: the adverse impact all that wine is having on the woman's health.

The influence of food lobbyists on the nation's nutrition policy has long been documented by observers such as Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, and it's obviously not going to go away. And for better or for worse, pussyfooting is built into the political process. And so, I suggest that the congressionally mandated guidelines that have been the backbone of the government's food policy through seven editions need a big boost from people who are adept at making features and benefits appealing, rather than just palatable, to the Consumer Republic. You.



Another question from the audience, in fact, addressed the issue head on. A woman from the American Dietetic Association said that despite all the hard work scientists put into crafting the guidelines every five years, almost no one ever sees or reads them.

She was assured by Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius that the government intends to "do a better job" this time round. She cited SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program), which provides financial incentives to people to eat more fruits and veggies, as well as the department's work with the industry to put improved labels on the front of packaging. Not to mention First Lady Michelle Obama's prominent role as the "microphone" for the cause.

A press release distributed yesterday also promises that the next-generation Food Pyramid, which will be released by the Department of Agriculture and HHS in the coming months, will be accompanied by "more consumer-friendly advice and tools."

Indeed, the Food Pyramid itself has come under a lot of criticism over the years for being an unhelpful, even obfuscating, representation of what people should do. To its credit, yesterday's announcement included a one-page document with "selected messages for consumers" that were bite-sized and easy to digest in three areas of concern:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals and chose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

The guidelines were announced by Sebelius and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. They were joined during the Q&A session by two doctors who were members of the advisory panel that drew them up. The process itself has been very transparent -- with open meetings, webcasts, and the opportunity for the public to comment -- from the beginning. And the outcome was, to be sure, a net positive, even to Nestle (although she had two "quibbles").

"I'm in shock...," Nestle blogged. "The new guidelines recognize that obesity is the number one public health nutrition problem in America and actually give good advice about what to do about it: eat less and eat better. For the first time, the guidelines make it clear that eating less is a priority."

Now, what can be done with that advice that will really get Americans engaged? Amidst all those sumptuous and salacious images and messages suggesting that you eat more food and drink, how do you influence people to eat and imbibe less of it? What kinds of campaign would you draw up to motivate people to do what's best for them rather than what tastes -- and feels -- so good?

This brings up another point that a health and fitness mentor of mine, Richard Keelor, has been making for years. Keelor is very skeptical of the government's dietary efforts, saying that it is "wasting time and money repeating what everyone has known for decades: Americans are fat and getting fatter."

He says that at least 50% of his obese clients are "compulsive overeaters, some with multiple addictions." The emphasis on caloric restriction sets these people up, he says, because when they fall off their diet, the shame gets internalized as personal failure and guilt.

"Eventually, it results in acceptance of the status-quo and morphs into one or more chronic disease conditions" he says. Indeed, Sebelius pointed out yesterday that these chronic diseases "account for 7 in 10 deaths in America and three-quarters of our nation's health care costs."

Food addiction is obviously different from addiction to alcohol and other drugs in that abstinence is not only not a desired outcome, it's not even an option. But it's time that we -- not just the government, but all of us -- literally begin to treat compulsive overeating as the disease, in itself, that it so often is. The operative word, as it should be with all addictions, is "treat."

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