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Understanding How Food Policies Failed To Lower Obesity

Last week, The Lancet, one of the oldest and most respected peer-reviewed medical journals, published a pair of reports looking at food habits around the world. Among issues dissected in the fascinating series of studies was how global dietary habits have changed from 1990 through 2010, why childhood obesity rates continue to rise, and how to reduce global obesity.

One of the papers focused on how current food policies fail in lowering obesity rates. I spoke with one of the study's authors, Dr. Corinna Hawkes, about what policies needs to change.

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What was the goal of the paper?

Dr. Corinna Hawkes What we were trying to do was indicate that policy was not going to be effective unless it was designed with the population in mind. What's being done now, whether it be an intervention or program or policy, doesn't take that into account. For example, if you design a policy for trying to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in schools, and your assumption is that kids can't afford fruits and vegetables, that they'd really like to eat them but they don't have access to them. So, you provide free fruits and vegetables to them but they don't eat them. Because the problem wasn't the lack of access, but the lack of exposure, and therefore they haven't gotten used to liking them. What needs fixing, then, is the policy makers ability to better understand the populations they're targeting when they're designing policies.

What needs to happen to fix this?

Hawkes: There is a fairly generic list of what needs to be done, but it's a question of making them better designed and smarter. If there was one thing I would to do if I wanted immediate results, it would be to identify what populations are the primary target populations. In the U.S. that would be people on low income who have really unhealthy diets, and so do the young kids in that population. Identify and start working with those young kids who don't have unhealthy preferences already. I can't really point to a particular policy as a sort of magic bullet, just approaches that one can take to design effective policy. The other quick win is really about understanding when people really do want to eat well but they can't because of lack of access or lack of social support, these barriers. And if you can overcome these barriers, you're going to get immediate response because it's a pent-up desire to eat better. So identifying these barriers are really important.

What kinds of barriers?

Hawkes: An obvious one is that someone doesn't have enough money, or a perception that they can't afford a healthy diet. Another might be that someone wants to eat healthily but everyone in their community doesn't, or they think they don't, so the social support isn't there. They might get laughed at if they want to eat something healthy, so that would be a very different type of innovative area.

What's the biggest mistake that policy makers are succumbing to?

Hawkes: They have to get away from this idea that one policy is going to work or another policy is going to work, that taxes are going to solve everything, or the nutrition label is going to solve everything. It's about careful design and targeted and tailored policies, really. Until you have the whole system working synergistically, you can't really expect it to work. It's a bit of a tall order to expect a few things sewn together in a not particularly strategic fashion to have an effect on what is a profound societal problem.

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