Obesity: Both Nature and Nurture

There has been growing recognition of the scope and threat of obesity. In the United States, one in four adults and one in five children are obese. And obesity has been steadily increasing. The health threats – heart disease, diabetes and cancer – are similar to those of smoking, and they tend to concentrate among the poor. These threats, too, are trending upward: one in three Americans born in 2000 is likely to develop diabetes. Direct and indirect costs of diabetes to the U.S. economy already were $132 billion in 2002. This problem has been building over time. Over the last 30 years American women have increased their daily caloric intake by 21 percent, or 325 calories, while men have added 170 calories to an already significant 2,450 calorie-base. Public awareness, however, has really wakened only in the last few years, with U.S. media coverage of obesity tripling since 2001. It is not surprising, therefore, that a sudden discovery of a steadily growing problem has generated false dichotomies and visible villains. The overriding false dichotomy is nature versus nurture. Are American society’s obese tendencies rooted in our physical or psychic make up, or are they based on changing eating habits and foodstuffs? The clear answer is: “both.” We are eating more but exercising less. There also is mounting evidence of genetic drivers toward obesity. Similarly, we are taking more meals out of the home – and not just at “fast food” restaurants. And we’re eating more processed foods, in larger portions. None of this finger pointing is likely to help us as a society get out of this situation. Fewer jobs require physical labor, so we must find more ways to burn up calories, whether in the gym or just climbing more stairs. Labeling foods as inherently good or bad ignores taste and common sense; all foods in moderation can be fitted into a slender figure. Nor does blaming portion sizes make sense; it ignores the thought processes that see bigger as the better bargain. No single solution exists, nor should any single culprit be seized upon. We need to see obesity in all of its complexity, if we are to sort out solutions that work for all of us.Food manufacturers and service industries need to be – and, I believe, are becoming – part of the solution. They are recognizing that their products contribute to the problem. So, there are things they can do to help. But, we are facing some real challenges in terms of consumer preferences. As this survey shows, consumers are most interested in foods that provide more convenience. That ranks well ahead of changing diets in pursuit of better nutrition. And before either of these comes preserving good taste for the things we voluntarily put in our mouths. An important tool in addressing the complexity of obesity is technology. Biotechnology and new processing methods are helping food companies capture useful ingredients and putting them in new places. Nanotechnology may help us engineer flavors and bioactive ingredients that will be satisfying to consumers and better for them. Cereals can be a great source of fiber and other healthful ingredients like:

• Polyphenols (phenolic acids, flavonoids, isoflavones, etc.)

• Saponins

• Lignans

• Tocopherols and other antioxidants

• EFAs

• Phytosterols

Soybeans are a great source of these ingredients and protein. These nutrition-enhancing ingredients can be extracted from grains and soybeans. They can be put into familiar products like breads, juices and the like in order to promote heart health, digestibility, bone strength, joint comfort and a feeling of satiety. Technology, however, is not a cure-all. First, there are problems in finding the right regulatory environment for new technologies and products. There are issues around rights of invention and proprietary ownership. And there are added costs in building many of these attributes into foods. Food also touches other sensitive chords. New products can be safe without being accepted by consumers. New processes can be proven to work without being trusted by consumers. And, weight gain is a gradual process; dealing with it – or its effects – can always be put off to another day. Between just letting obesity spread and nutrigenomic-designed diets will lie a host of incremental strategies. Food manufacturers will develop novel ingredients and ingredient combinations to deliver more nutrition tastefully. Even conventional agricultural products will be engineered or bred to offer health and appeal. And, growing awareness will lead to better choices for wellness – whether it is new foods, new self-discipline, new activity We will need choices to cover the differences between men and women, children and adults, young and old. Choice also helps make healthfulness a complement to taste, not an alternative. And we will need to take responsibility for our own behaviors. Technology and food service innovations can support good behavior, but success still starts with giving consumers what they want.