Taking on the Food Environment (Part 2): Personal Responsibility


The traditional views on weight loss tend to place a lot of blame on the individual. “Just change already”, “stop being lazy”, “put the cheeseburger down”. If losing weight were simple, why are one-third of U.S. adults obese? Why do one in four Canadians have Type 2 Diabetes/Prediabetes, the majority related to excess weight?

The reason being is that weight loss is not as simple as “calories-in, calories-out” or “eat less, move more”. The hundreds of choices we make every day related to our lifestyle are influenced by much more than our own personal willpower. Last week I wrote about a client I work with, who like many of us have a desire to lose weight (and keep it off). But as you saw in my example, despite the intentions to make changes, implementing these changes can be difficult when the food environment is factored in.

One of my biggest girl-crushes has to be Marion Nestle. Seriously, this woman is my hero. I follow her blog Food Politics and she speaks about the intricate relationships between government policy, farm subsidies, historical events (e.g. women joining the workforce), industry influence etc. and how these relate to the food we eventually consume. It’s complicated, it’s messy but I LOVE learning about it.

I wanted to showcase a food environment topic that Marion Nestle posted back in August 2011. It was her response to McDonalds offering “healthier” Happy Meals to children. You can read the full post here. Her views pinpointed that making healthier Happy Meals is basically a health-washed marketing tactic put on by McDonalds, secondary to recent declining sales. Are the new re-designed Happy Meals actually better for children? Hell no! Here is why:

  •  There were no changes to the default Happy Meal menu. Basically if you want a “healthier” meal, you would have to specify so, otherwise the default was given. And as Ms. Nestle points out, the majority of consumers will choose the default (because it’s the easiest).
  • The names “McDonalds” and “health food” rarely appear in the same sentence. Wouldn’t children be better off eating something healthy (e.g. a homemade meal) versus something that is “slightly healthier than before?” Overall, McDonalds should still be considered an occasional treat, not as an equal substitute to a healthy meal.
  • Consumers need to remember that McDonalds is a BUSINESS. “This means selling more food to more people more often, viewing food choice exclusively as a matter of personal responsibility and pretending that the company’s $1.3 billion annual marketing expenditure has no effect on consumer choice”.

So you can now see how easy it is for our food environment to place a perceived “concern” about our health, and how industry spews a desire to “help us” make healthier choices. But in reality, it always falls back onto our personal willpower and responsibility. We will offer you items that are “less bad”, but YOU need to make the choice. YOU need to pick items that are not the default. If you see our advertising promoting a $1.99 burger, it is YOUR fault you went and purchased it.

In summary, my take-home message is simple: be less judgemental. This is especially true for those who work in healthcare. If a person is overweight/obese and trying to lose weight, do not assume that they took the wrong turn because they lack the willpower to “say no to cake” or they are “too lazy to exercise”. Our food environment clearly shows that personal responsibility is one miniscule factor playing a role in our choices, DESPITE what the food industry says 🙂 Stay tuned for Part 3! xo


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