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Framing the Obesity Debate

August 4, 2013

coca-cola2Coca-Cola recently launched a new campaign intended to fight obesity. Part of that campaign includes labeling all of its products calorie counts—a move which Coke opposed for years. Specifically, Coke committed itself to the following four goals in all of the 200 national markets in which it operates:

  1. Offering low- or no- calorie beverage options in every market;
  2. Providing transparent nutrition information, featuring calories on the front of all of our packages;
  3. Helping get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where we do business;
  4. Exercising market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world.

One might think this is an interesting move for a company whose primary product is empty calories. But as calorie labels become more ubiquitous, are they becoming less effective? Recent research suggests that most consumers don’t understand calories, and that calorie labels have no real impact on consumer choices in restaurants.

Coke’s campaign also emphasizes that “a calorie is a calorie”—that all calories are the same. Indeed, as a commercial announcing the new Coke campaign states, “all calories count, and if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight. That goes for Coca-Cola and everything else with calories.”

But there’s a couple of problems with that framing.

First, it falls victim to Gyorgy Scrinis’ argument of nutritionism (later popularized by Michael Pollan). Scrinis argues that nutritionism, “the reductive understanding of nutrients as the key indicators of healthy food” that dominates food regulatory policy, marketing, and dietary advice, “has narrowed and in some cases distorted our appreciation of food quality, such that even highly processed foods may be perceived as healthful depending on their content of “good” or “bad” nutrients.” Comparing coke to carrots only in terms of calories is an example of precisely this logic.

Second, it also shifts the locus of responsibility from the social to the individual. If weight is simply a matter of calorie balance—that is, food in vs. exercise out—then weight gain is primarily the result of individual choice. All other agents—from the food company to the infrastructure of our communities—is rendered invisible in the debate over obesity.

Framing the obesity debate, however, requires a more comprehensive understanding of the drivers of obesity in the first place. Obesity is not merely a result of individual choice and behavior. Were that the case, we would not be likely to a generalized weight increase in societies around the world, overweight and obese babies, and the like. It’s not just individual behavior that drives obesity. It’s also not just Coke’s marketing of empty calories. It’s the entire social system, from the food deserts that deprive entire communities of healthy foods, to the design of our cities that makes physical activity increasingly difficult. It’s a system of governmental subsidies that make fast food and high fructose corn syrup cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. And some suggest that it’s also a system of food production that relies on extensive chemical inputs in unknown combinations. But whatever combination of factors is at the root of obesity, it’s not just a matter of individual choice.

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