Nov 12, 2008

Cutting Back

In my leafy upscale NYC burb, obesity falls into the same category as alcoholism and spousal abuse: you rarely see evidence of it and certainly no one talks about it. If anything, anorexia seems to be far more of a problem around these parts.

Which is why I was taken aback by the magnitude of the problem last week during our week-long vacation to Disney World. Where I’d have to estimate that somewhere between 20 and 25% of my fellow guests were morbidly obese.

Now by “morbidly obese” I don’t mean “needs to lose about 50 pounds.” I’m talking people who are somewhere north of 350 pounds. Whose bodies have become so unwieldy they often need electric scooters to get around.

The saddest thing to witness was just how many of them were young (under 35) and how many children and teenagers there were who were well on the path to adult obesity.

It’s pointless to try and affix blame for their condition; I’ve no doubt the reasons are as varied as the people afflicted. But it’s foolish not to look at them and see a major health care crisis in the making, with all its myriad implications.

As marketers (since this is, after all, a marketing blog) there are steps we can take to help stem this epidemic.

New York City recently passed a law that required chain restaurants to prominently post their calorie counts and nutritional information right on the menu. And like almost everyone I've spoken with, I’ve been shocked to learn how caloric many of the foods I’d enjoyed are, especially ones I’d assumed were fairly healthy.

The main culprit behind these 700 calorie turkey sandwiches is supersizing. I am not a light eater, but I rarely get close to finishing one of those monstrosities (and their “wrap” cousins) which are easily the size of two regular sandwiches. And if supersizing pushes something as prima facie healthy as sliced white meat turkey into the caloric stratosphere, you can imagine what it does to less nutritionally sound foods.

In conjunction with that new law, the NYC Department of Health began running ads on the subways and in bus shelters (see the example above) reminding people that the average adult needs about 2,000 calories a day to maintain their current weight. A number that helps put all those 1,200 calorie lunches into perspective.

And so I’m calling on those of us who work with food industry clients to push them to normalize their portion sizes. The current economic downturn offers a perfect rationalization for the return to healthier sized portions. Show them how you would promote these new sizes and why it would be good for them and for America in general. (One example: Normal sized portions are environmentally friendly since much less uneaten food will get tossed aside.)

We also need more awareness, a la the NYC Department of Health ads, of just how much food we really need to be eating. I mean I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talking about that 2,000 calorie number (which, I realize, is a number appropriate for sedentary adults.) Because as any good doctor will tell you, diet is strictly a numbers game: calories in/calories out.

The advertising and marketing industry is often accused of pushing our current unhealthy eating habits on Americans, of making fast food and big food seem sexy and desirable.

It’s time we pushed back.