Throwing Darts at a Board Blindfolded: Why We Haven’t Hit the Obesity Bull’s Eye

When the Centers for Disease Control reported in February 2014 that obesity rates for children aged 2-5 had dropped 43% in the previous ten years the news was hailed by experts as the only evidence obesity rates have regressed among any age group since the 1980’s.

Despite the seemingly good news, no one was able to explain why.  Some credited Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity initiative. Some said increased breastfeeding rates did the trick. Others said changes in government feeding programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women, Infants and Children program were the reason.  The New York Times said former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on the use of trans fat in restaurants should get some credit.

For two decades, we have seen a cadre of social-engineering-minded policy makers, academics, activist groups and non-governmental organizations proffer solution after solution to the obesity problem.  Most of the ideas were little more than governmental interventions – bans, taxes and restrictions – that impacted the operating environment of food and beverage companies.

Despite the seemingly good news from the CDC last year the fact is this – the decidedly anti-corporate social engineers seeking a solution to obesity have no idea what they are doing.  Day in and day out, year in and year out, they lurch from one government solution to another in an attempt to scare consumers, bludgeon food companies and promote their organizations and individual personas.

In reality, those who have anointed themselves as the anti-obesity vanguard have been throwing darts at a board for more than twenty years now and have little or nothing to show for it.  The “fail often and fail quick” approach chosen by anti-corporate fear mongers is a failed strategy that has left two thirds of American men, women and children overweight or obese.

No one is willing to admit one strong possibility for the recent drop in obesity rates among young children – many parents are getting the message.  They have been infused with educational information at very turn for twenty years. On TV, from government and food companies, online and from friends and relatives they constantly hear about why and how to eat a healthy diet and get more physical activity.

While the data would seem to suggest they themselves have been unable to lead a healthier lifestyle, parents are ensuring their young children eat a healthy diet and get more activity in their lives.   That sounds to me like information, education and personal choice and responsibility are working.

Although rarely mentioned in the media, let’s give credit to food and beverage companies for creating an explosion (30,000 at last count) of healthier product choices with reduced calories, serving sizes, sugar fat and salt since 2003.  Consumers have reacted positively, as healthier products are flying off the shelves and zipping past grocery store scanners in droves.  Food companies have also contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to anti-obesity educational efforts.

So, how long will the iron triangle of anti-corporate policymakers, academics and activists continue to play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” when it comes to obesity?  I wish I had better news, but don’t expect the game to be called off anytime soon.  The politics run deep, and there is too much ego and money at stake for that to happen.

You can expect more demonization of ingredients like sugars and carbohydrates, as well as more failed experiments at taxpayer and consumer expense.

That is unfortunate because all the evidence suggests a straight forward solution is right in front of us.  Informing adults and children how to eat a healthy diet and get more physical activity works.  Simply stated – the answer is in the bull’s eye on the Dart Board, but we will likely never hit it because we are playing the game with a blindfold over our eyes.

Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former executive vice president of communications and membership services for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former director of communications for the American Beverage Association