Obesity: Consumers Want Choices

Promoting weight management and obesity prevention in America calls for examining a complex set of issues, and requires a cooperative approach for success. As the old saying goes, "For every complex issue there is a simple answer... and it is almost always wrong." This could not be truer regarding America’s current debate over weight management and obesity prevention and the search for solutions and answers.

The Food Products Association believes that all stakeholders need to focus on helping Americans improve their diets and become more physically active. This needs to happen in schools, work places and our communities. America’s food producers and manufacturers are important in this process, but we are not alone. If efforts to reduce the incidence of obesity are to be successful, government, educators, academic researchers, and the public health and medical communities must all participate.

Robert Earl, RD, MPH, is Senior Director of Nutrition Policy for the Food Products Association (FPA) - the largest trade association in the U.S. and worldwide serving the food and beverage industry.

The federal government's 2005 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the messages contained in the new consumer publication Finding Your Way to a Healthier You take an important step forward. They improve upon past efforts to assist individuals and families to find balance between food intake and physical activity, make smart choices from every food group, and get the most nutrition out of those choices.

The message is clear, "eating right and being physically active aren't just a 'diet' or a 'program' — they are keys to a healthy lifestyle." Healthy lifestyles, not just food choices, can improve our health; prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and certain cancers; and, provide for a more fulfilling and longer life.

A key challenge will be motivating consumers to incorporate the recommendations and information provided in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, the upcoming Food Guidance System (revisions to current Food Guide Pyramid), and the information on food labels (Nutrition Facts and nutrition and health claims), into their daily lives. This "trilogy" of information tools — guidelines, food guide and food label — must work in concert in order to achieve success on the dietary side of the equation, and at the same time, promote activity for energy balance. Effective delivery and communication of these messages will require public-private partnerships including government, health professionals, the food and activity industries, and educators.

FPA has been particularly involved in the area of food label education. Nutrition labeling provides information for consumers to make choices from the bounty of nutritious and safe food products on the market — including fresh cut, bottled, canned, dried, frozen, and other packaged varieties. When the Nutrition Facts panel became largely universal on foods in the early 1990s, FPA (then named the National Food Processors Association), in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, developed communications tools to assist in public education about nutrition labeling. However, the Nutrition Facts panel was originally designed to focus on heart disease risk reduction rather than weight management.

With the current emphasis on weight management and obesity prevention in mind, FPA revised these tools to focus on healthy weight management in a new publication titled The Food Label & You: Following Food Labels for Healthy Weight Management that is available through FPA's Web site. FPA will continue to explore new ways to inform and educate adults, children, and older Americans about nutrition labeling and its important role in weight management.

There is widespread agreement within the nutrition and health community and government that addressing the issues of obesity and weight management in this country will ultimately require the type of cooperative approach we have articulated. Unfortunately, there are also those that advocate a different approach. Such an approach basically puts all the blame on the food industry for the products they produce. This is a misguided and overly simplistic answer to a complex issue.

Consumers want and should have choices in their diet. The food industry has consistently responded by providing consumers numerous reduced-, low-, no-calorie, fat, sugar, sodium, and salt options. Consumers have a wide variety of choices up and down supermarket aisles. The key is not to take away the choices and options that consumers have come to expect. Rather, we all must work together to provide education and information so they can make the food choices that suit their individual dietary needs.

Helping consumers incorporate the messages from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the new Food Guidance System into their daily lives and teaching them how to use the Nutrition Facts Panel, would be the most effective way to promote healthy weight management in this country.

It may not be the simplest answer, but it is the right one.

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