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Health, Obesity, and the Capitalism Conflict

Posted by eric on January 13, 2012

I've written about the challenges of getting people to decide to be fit, I've written about being a good influence to those around you, and I've written about numerous ways to try and improve upon your fitness regimen.

But looking back, the one article I've written so far to date that continues to pull on me is where I outline the lobbying efforts of those companies who continue to benefit from an unhealthy populace.

So now it's time to look forward - to be candid about the most challenging aspects of turning around the world-wide epidemic of poor health. And they have nothing to do with calories, exercise, taxation, or fitness opportunities.

It's all about money.

Let's take a look at three areas that cause problems in terms of generating real progress in making the world healthier.

#1 - Momentum

The world didn't become unhealthy overnight, and it didn't get there out of altruistic intentions. Companies form to make money - and they are rewarded for making as much of it as possible. How do you make big profits? Find something that people like, make it as inexpensively as possible, and sell it to as many people as possible. Then continue to convince them not only that they do like it, but that they should like it, and that by having it they are better off than they would be without it.

Who are some of the biggest culprits in terms of damage done to societal health? You have to look no further than the top lobbyists fighting to ensure legislation doesn't impact their ability to sell their products to the public. Not surprisingly, some of the most profitable companies in the world have made their fortunes by providing low-cost, low-nutritional value products to consumers, or by providing "solutions" to health problems created by poor nutrition.

This list includes "big food" (McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Monsanto), "big oil" (who profit not only from non-sustainable distribution practices, but also production of the chemicals that go into fertilizers and food containers) and "big pharma" (who better to treat an ailing public than pharmaceutical companies?). 

What do they do with their profits? Well, they have to sustain their business, so they reinvest some of it - amounting to billions of dollars - on advertising their products to what has become a very receptive public. This advertising hits multiple markets - TV, radio, print, social media, etc. 

I'm guessing that your local organic farmer can't spend the dollars necessary to promote his brand on Twitter, let alone run national ad spots on major networks.

So companies with large bank accounts are able to use marketing to influence our behavior, influence our legislation, and determine what is largely available for us to consume. My wife is a personal trainer, and she was recently accused by one of her client's sons of "ruining their lives" because his mom has now started eating healthier. No Oreos, no McDonald's, no Dairy Queen. Funny? Sure. But more sad that this was the honest, direct reaction of someone who has been "programmed" from an early age to associate poor eating habits with a "good life".

This programming has been building for decades - begun long before we understood the negative health  impacts of chemicals in our food, generally poor eating habits, and industrialized farms supplying our food chain. Now that we do know all of this, the momentum - in this case defined by the sheer amount of money involved - of the problem threatens to become unstoppable. 

Anyone see the movie WALL-E?

WALL-E People

As a result of the momentum of mass marketing, it is becoming more and more difficult to even find good alternatives to the foods that are out there. Things that we've traditionally looked at as healthy alternatives aren't. Animals are raised in industrialized farms, given food that is fundamentally different than what their bodies are optimized to process, subsequently processed with chemicals, packaged, and shipped thousands of miles in frozen containers so we can heat it up and eat it. Yummy.

Maybe vegetarian or vegan is the way to go - except that even our produce is chemically treated, enhanced for "flavor" or appearance, and transported long distances to get to the grocery store.

This isn't to say there aren't better options - locally grown/raised food, organic suppliers, etc. - those do exists. They're just more difficult to find and more expensive to buy. And some of them aren't even really any better for you.

#2 - Misconceptions/Misinformation

Of course, once we all started putting on weight, there was a clamoring for solutions to help us get healthy and lose that excess fat. A new industry was born - health and fitness. The first big misconception here is that the "health" industry is primarily about helping us improve our health.

Unfortunately, that industry has to abide by the same rules - make money or go out of business. You don't continue to make money if your client base no longer needs your product. What happens if everyone in American were to suddenly be at their ideal weight and fitness level? Where would all of those peddling "lose weight quick" diets be? Half of the content of every magazine in American would immediately become obsolete. Billions of pharmaceutical revenue would be lost.

In reality, those of us promoting health and fitness should be in the business of putting ourselves out of business. Or, perhaps, like me - do it in your spare time while generating no revenue.

But back to the misconceptions. Instead of real solutions to peoples' health issues, in most cases solutions are presented that purport to help, but in the end they really don't.

Low fat diets? Not so helpful. Why? Because not only do you need a certain amount of fat in your diet for your body to function properly and to help you feel full when you eat, low-fat foods are often processed and created - using chemical additives - in a way that is likely to cause more long-term damage than good. 

Diet drugs? Some work. Until they kill you, at least. Some work while you're using them, only to stop working once you stop taking them. Others can drive a psychological dependence - now that's an excellent way to keep a customer.

The "No Fail Diet"? How is that possible? No diet works for 100% of the population - there are too many variables in the human condition to make a claim that "your plan" will work for "everyone". Those that do are clearly sensationalizing in an attempt to lure the desperate.

Even the very premise that being overweight is inherently a bad thing. Is it? How many of the studies that conclude this are sponsored by those who profit from getting people to lose weight? Sure, it makes sense, it appeals to our current sensibilities, but is it accurate? Some studies indicate that being moderately overweight (< 30 BMI) does not increase mortality rate and may, in fact, decrease it over lower BMI ranges.

I'd contend that being overweight in and of itself is not the problem so much as how one gets to be overweight. If you're overweight and fit (yes, it's possible) you're probably just as well off as someone who is thin and unfit. However, if you're overweight because you don't exercise and eat too much chemically enhanced, processed foods, then you'd better take a closer look at your nutritional plan.

The cynic in me is asking the question "What do we really know about our health?" Who do you trust for your information who won't be biased? Studies take money. Who sponsors them? And why? Not being a conspiracy theorist, just saying we need to be careful what we believe.

#3 - Lack of Organization

We all see the problem. 33% of the country is obese. 60% is overweight. The food chain is broken. Our nutrition - our lives - is going down the toilet and we're happily there flushing away. 

So we want to do something about it. We want to help everybody. We want to change the world.

How do we do it? We spend countless hours twittering and blogging about the problem. We chastise those who eat at fast food restaurants and complain about companies promoting poor habits. We rejoice in the bankruptcy of Hostess and the subsequent potential for the demise of the Twinkie. But we do all of these things mostly amongst ourselves! 

We don't have billion-dollar advertising and lobbying budgets. We don't have commercials on prime time TV. Media outlets don't clamour for interviews with us because we're promoting healthy lifestyles because they're busy reporting on the McRib sandwich and Tim Tebow and the latest political scandal.

We tackle the problem one, ten, maybe even a thousand people at a time for some of the more successful companies trying to make a difference. We don't tackle it millions or hundreds of millions at a time, tens or hundreds of times a day like the "establishment" does - like we need to in order to "win" this war.

And maybe if we had that scale we'd be in the same position as others that come before us. Bound by the almighty dollar, beholden to the ownership to turn a profit. But at some point we need to organize more effectively. Right now, we're simply too easy to ignore.

What next?

"To be, or not to be, that is the question..." Okay, perhaps the question is more - what to be? What will it take to counteract decades of momentum and misinformation, a fractured industry struggling to make an impact, and a population who seemingly doesn't really care about their health or the health of the planet?

I don't know. Yet. But I do know it will take more than blogging and tweeting amongst the converts.

Stay fit everyone.


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