Natural Foods Merchandiser

Obesity Problem Tracked to Food and Lifestyle Choices

For the vigilant and informed, the U.S. Surgeon Generals' recent ominous warnings about obesity in America should come as no surprise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity in America has reached epidemic proportions, with an estimated 61 percent of adults either overweight or obese. The "overweight phenomena," which spans the entire lifecycle, shows no gender or age preference and favors economically sophisticated nations, has risen to public health concern No. 1 in the United States. Only smoking and smoking-related diseases exceed obesity in terms of health care cost expenditures. Perhaps more sadly, children are suffering from obesity-related diseases that previously manifested themselves much later in life.

Natural foods stores are often seen as destinations for those with health concerns, and although there's no panacea for this widespread problem, the more you know about what these customers have been through and tried, the more prepared your store will be to provide what solutions it can.

How Did We Get Here?
The overweight public is routinely bombarded with conflicting nutrition and dietary advice. The diet business is big business, subsequently inviting many opinions, experts and "solutions." Of late, many questions have been raised about which nutrient or what type of food is the culprit in the obesity crisis. Obesity is a complex issue, but its root causes can be traced to a simple energy equation: When calories ingested exceed the calories expended, you gain weight. Calorie source doesn't matter—protein, fat, carbohydrate; excess calories mean weight gain. For some people, metabolic and physical disorders cause weight gain, but for most, the issue is a basic energy imbalance.

Despite the simple equation, those in the health care field continue to debate who or what is culpable. Health care professionals point to the fat- and sugar-laden food supply, our love affair with convenience items, the notion that no one has time to cook whole foods and the population's seemingly increased inability to move itself using muscle power. Sprawling developments void of sidewalks may inhibit a simple stroll and fuel vehicle dependence, not exercise.

But the issue goes deeper than this. A report by Marion Nestle, Ph.D., MPH, professor and chairwoman, department of nutrition and food studies, New York University, and Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington D.C., appearing in Public Health Reports January/February 2000, alludes to more subtle influences—marketing and advertising messages. "The food industry spends about $11 billion annually on advertising and another $22 billion or so on trade shows, supermarket slotting fees, incentives and other consumer promotions," they write. Compare that to the meager $1 million annual budget for the National Cancer Institute's Five-A-Day campaign. In her recent book, Food Politics (University of California Press, 2002), Nestle also contends that the food industry consciously targets young consumers. "Children make attractive customers," she writes, and they also "control an increasing amount of money and purchasing decisions."

The conventional foods industry denies any implications of manipulation. The Grocery Manufacturers Association of America says the obesity issue "cannot be solved solely by blaming individuals, food companies or societal trends and events." In recent testimony before a House Senate Committee, GMA steered the obesity issue toward a "commitment to promoting physical activity." Of interest, however, is a proposed advertising campaign by some consumable goods manufacturers and restaurants to warn consumers that eating too many of their products could, in fact, make them fat. Many have surmised that the motivating factor for this campaign is a possible fear of tobacco industry-style lawsuits.

The Consumer's Mind
How does the natural products retailer fit into the array of options available to obese individuals? Certainly there is plenty of help available from high-end health and lifestyle institutes, health and fitness clubs, dietitians, health educators, seminars, workshops, pills, packages, drinks and even surgeons. Consumers are looking for anything they can take or eat or "do" to help them lose weight with a minimal amount of physical or mental distress.

If they can open a package or strap themselves to a machine and the mechanics of either will facilitate weight loss, this is preferential to the "pain" of evaluating the actual causes and making lifestyle changes. For the retailer, this translates into a consumer who has been exposed to a lot of information, has tried a plethora of programs, products and remedies and still seeks the ultimate solution. Add to this layers of confusion about what is or is not the right nutrient, diet, herb, supplement or exercise program, and you have profiled a typical consumer desperate to lose weight.

Although natural products retailers cannot solve the obesity crisis, you are perfectly positioned to act as a catalyst for lifestyle change by presenting consumers with an option: healthful and nutritious food. Helping them discover these foods and new ideas is the trick.

Today's consumers specialize in interior-store shopping and emerge with processed foods destined to contribute to their waistlines. They strive to eat healthfully and nutritiously. After all, why wouldn't consumers think good nutrition comes in a package or that weight loss solutions come in cans? That's what they've been told. With this in mind, your marketing approach to the weight-conscious consumer is simple: introduce nutritious ideas and basic meal solutions by engaging your customers with fresh food samples. Get food in their mouths and start a dialogue. The reason people are stuck in the convenience- and packaged-food rut is because they often lack the experience and the confidence to taste or prepare fresh, nutritious alternatives. In the natural products industry, this is your specialty.

For an ambiguous goal like this, success should not be measured in pounds shed or sales made. The impact is subtle. If a sample of cantaloupe results in fresh fruit on a shopper's plate that night, you successfully planted a nutritional idea in an unsuspecting mind. As a dietitian, I strongly believe that these tiny flavor-filled, nutritionally enhanced steps will change the palates and ultimately the waistlines of Americans. Sampling programs are a way to introduce fresh and nutritious food ideas, get instant feedback and perhaps plant some seeds of long-term change. Frankly, I can think of no one better positioned and better equipped to facilitate point-of-choice change than the natural foods retailer.

Amanda Archibald is a marketing strategist and a food and nutrition consultant. She can be reached at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 27-28

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