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Lisa Bennett

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Should Anti-Obesity Campaigns Learn from McDonald's?

Posted: 05/10/10 02:03 PM ET

Watching McDonald's new "Big Mac World Chant" ad campaign--announced within a week of The Atlantic's latest cover story, "Fat Nation: It's Worse Than You Think"--reminded me of that famous October 2000 debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Gore, you'll remember, came across as informed, articulate, capable, if a little arrogant. Bush, in contrast, showed up as the likeable one: easy-going, fun, the guy you'd rather talk to at a party.

In the end (with a little help from the U.S. Supreme Court), fun trumped serious. It's a common occurrence, even without outside intervention--and quite possibly a good thing to keep in mind as the contest heats up over what American children will eat.

During the past several months, a growing number of informed, articulate, dedicated voices have called for anti-obesity measures while food companies, some with budgets the size of small countries, continue to relentlessly, joyously, almost irresistibly promote the kinds of foods that contribute to obesity.

Just try to watch the "Big Mac World Chant" and not want to join in. I've tried and failed every time. I like the singing, I like the movement, I like the spirit. I'd like to be with the people in the ad at a party--the great big global party they seem to be part of--and to that extent, like 65 million other people in 117 countries every day, I too am hooked by McDonald's. It's fun.

What's more, no one in this happy, beautiful world is obese, or even slightly overweight. It could make one wonder: What are Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, Andrew Weil, the CDC, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, retired military officials, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Time, and CNN, to name some who have addressed this issue recently, talking about?

So here are the facts: During the past 30 years, the rate of obesity among adults has doubled, and the rate of obesity in children has tripled. Some 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And that rate is projected to continue to rise during the coming decade among children and African American young adults, according to a new report from the University of Chicago School of Medicine in the journal, Medical Decision Making.

Obesity puts people at increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, and certain forms of cancer, not to mention other psychological and emotional issues. And treating those conditions gets costly--not only to patients but the economy as a whole.

"Our health care system is already on the verge of total collapse," Andrew Weil, author and physician best known for pioneering integrative medicine, said at a conference last month on personal and environmental health. And he predicted that two huge demographic changes are going to put even more pressure on the system: One is the aging of Baby Boomers, and the other is the aging of obese children.

"The obesity dilemma among kids is the greatest health crisis facing us," said Weil. The children who are diagnosed as obese today, he said, are likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 10 to 15 years from now. Some of them, he added, will also experience coronary heart disease in their 20s and 30s.

In short, Weil said, "I think we're headed for total economic disaster unless we make dramatic changes." Currently, the CDC states that the health cost of obesity in the United States is as high as $147 billion annually. According to a report (PDF) by Kenneth E. Thorpe, by 2018, the health cost of obesity is expected to increase to $344 billion annually.

What Needs to Happen
The two primary causes of obesity, according to the World Health Organization, are reduced physical activity and increased consumption of energy-dense foods high in saturated fats and sugars. The two key solutions, therefore, are increased physical activity and decreased consumption of foods high in saturated fats and sugars.

(Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, omitted one side of the equation when she told Fortune last month: "If all consumers exercised, did what they had to do, the problem of obesity wouldn't exist." As Eric Ravussin, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and an expert on weight loss, recently told The New York Times: "In general, exercise by itself is pretty useless for weight loss.")

So how do we get kids eating better and getting more active?

"If we can't easily cure obesity, we've got two choices." Marc Ambinder wrote in May 2010 issue of The Atlantic. "We rely on medical science to ameliorate its effects, in which case we consign the obese to a miserable life waiting for that one pill or Nature article that solves it all; or we get serious about helping to prevent people, and especially children, from becoming overweight and obese in the first place."

Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign has identified four avenues as central to its goal of solving the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. This includes providing access to healthier food in schools, helping get kids active, increasing access to healthy and affordable food, and providing better information through labeling and a "Next Generation Food Pyramid," with new dietary guidelines expected this month.

Underlying all of this is the need for a massive education effort to change the habits of children that are so entrenched that even when Jamie Oliver showed kids on his Food Revolution how chicken nuggets are made--a process that made them grimace and squirm --they still chose to eat them.

The Center for Ecoliteracy has been working on school lunch reform, as well as integrating food and its connections to health and the environment into the curriculum of K-12 schools, for the past decade. We have repeatedly seen evidence of the change that is possible with education, especially if it begins in the earliest grades and is made relevant to kids--for example, by getting them involved in growing their own food in school gardens.

But we also recognize that the influence of the media, advertising in particular, is daunting--and cannot be ignored. In 2004, the Kaiser Foundation reported that the majority of research shows that children who spend the most time with media are most likely to be overweight. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not because they are not getting out and exercising. The more likely factor, the study concluded, was the influence of billions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods.

Today, the overwhelming majority (97.8%) of products children see advertised on television are high in either sugar, fat or sodium, according to the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which received a $2.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute in 2010 to further study the relationship between exposure to advertising, eating habits, and weight.

In its May 2010 editorial, Scientific American seemed to declare enough is enough. "The federal government needs to halt the marketing of unhealthy food to kids," the editors wrote.

Whether banning the marketing of unhealthy food to kids is the way to go is surely deserving of serious debate, as are many other anti-obesity measures.

But perhaps another option is for those behind today's growing number of anti-obesity initiatives to take a lesson from the playbook of the marketers who succeed by making their product accessible and their message pleasant, attractive, even fun.

It's obviously working for McDonald's: First quarter 2010 earnings were up 11 percent over the same period last year.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009). The Center for Ecoliteracy pioneered the Rethinking School Lunch program.