Food for thought on the obesity epidemic

Helping people stay healthy has to be more profitable than helping them into an early grave

“The obesity epidemic scares us to death. This new generation will be the first not to outlive their parents.” So said Don Curry, president of CIGNA New England, at a recent meeting. I can understand his concern, as diabetes, heart disease, strokes and a whole bunch of other expensive, hard-to-treat ailments are far more likely in overweight people.

It’s a real problem. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) claims 36 percent of American adults are 30 pounds or more overweight. And then, of course, there’s the childhood obesity problem.

I had occasion to visit a school and was amazed at the number of overweight students. Certainly there were some when I went to school, but they were few and far between. As I roamed the corridors, I was astounded that there seemed to be very few what we used to call “normal” waistlines. A look at the vending machines or a walk through the cafeteria would certainly explain some of this.

Have you noticed no matter where you go, you never seem to be far from a Dunkin’ Donuts? They have drive-up windows, so you don’t even get the exercise of getting out of your car and actually walking to buy that calorie-, carbohydrate- and fat-laden donut — which should be no more than an occasional treat, not a regular staple. Even so, there’s a line every morning when I drive by.

Thinking about this one afternoon while sailing on Lake Massabesic, I reached for a can of peanuts (great boat munchies, as they don’t spoil when kept sealed). After taking a handful, I read the label. It seems the “serving size” is “about 35 pieces.” I had no idea how many I was chewing on, nor did I expect it to be my last handful. Have you ever counted the peanuts you’re eating?

The can has a “heart-healthy” label, which is comforting, until you read the ingredients and do the math.

Can you tell me why everything has to be so misleading? I understand marketing and the great need to sell more, no matter how much we’re selling, but is helping your customers go more speedily to their eternal reward, and perhaps much more miserably, really good for business in the long run?

Where’s the long-term payback in effectively poisoning people for profit? Mankind has survived for thousands of years, but we did it without trans fats and preservatives.

The education strategy

I’m not a fan of New York Mayor Bloomberg, but he recently tried to do something about this in his domain, limiting some of the most egregious sugar-laden, fat-producing products, and everybody’s laughing at him.

Although I’m happy to admit eliminating some of these tasty, but potentially lethal, items from the menu may not be the best approach in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” trying to educate the “free and the brave” isn’t working.

In Clayton M. Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he explains how “disruptive technologies” have chagrined, and in some cases effectively destroyed, some of our best companies that are doing everything right. For example, just look at what the iPad is doing to the laptop.

Christensen has followed this up with books on education and health care. It’s probably only a matter of time before he comes out with one on the food industry.

In Silicon Valley, everybody wants to create the next “new, new thing” and become a gazillionaire. Some try to develop the next Facebook or industry-changing hardware like touchscreens.

We need killer apps for the food industry – something as tasty as a donut that is actually good for you. The ingredients would probably include some fruits and vegetables, but we have to find a way to keep the preservatives out. It should be nutritional and filling without being fattening.

Here’s the real key: Somehow we have to make eating these little gems fashionable and more desirable than a chocolate cream donut. Marketing is everything. We never wanted iPhones or iPads until we saw them. Then we wanted them no matter what the economy was doing.

Helping people stay healthy has to be more profitable than helping them into an early grave.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or .