Likening America’s food industry to the tobacco industry, psychology professor Kelly Brownell said “guerilla marketing” strategies for unhealthy foods are responsible for obesity in an increasing number of Americans, particularly children.
Brownell, the director of Yale’s Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, spoke about the national obesity crisis at the Becton Center Friday morning. In his presentation, which was part of a weekly lecture series by the Yale Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Brownell said economic, biological and cultural factors have led to an increase in obesity and outlined steps that individuals can take to help solve this problem.
While the increase in obesity levels is a general phenomenon, he said obesity is highest in minority populations and those afflicted by poverty because healthier foods are generally less accessible and more expensive than unhealthier foods.
“It is easier to fill your family with ‘empty calories,’” he said, referring to foods that lack nutritional value and lead to poor health and weight gain.
Brownell also said that overeating and the consumption of high-fat foods are complimentary to human biology because early hunter-gatherer humans had to store energy as effectively as possible because they did not know when they would eat their next meal.
The “nutritional landscape” in the United States plays the most important role in determining individual diets and the food that parents choose to give their children, Brownell said. Unhealthy food is highly accessible, convenient, good tasting, heavily promoted and inexpensive, and Americans therefore consume them more than healthier alternatives such as fruits and vegetables, he said.
“Twenty-five percent of all the vegetables eaten in the U.S. are french fries,” Brownell said.
Obesity is caused by unhealthy food choices and overeating, which is primarily the result of the food industry’s marketing strategies and the government’s failure to recognize and regulate the actions of food corporations, Brownell said.
“They avoid any blame at all for the deteriorating diet in the country by assigning the blame to the individuals who eat their foods,” Brownell said, adding that food corporations emphasize the importance of physical activity over diet for a healthy lifestyle.
Brownell cited increasing portion sizes of packaged food and beverages as one example of the industry’s manipulation of the nutritional environment. He said years ago the standard Coca-Cola size was eight ounces, but today it is a 12-ounce can or 20-ounce bottle.
“There is very clear science showing that people eat more when they are served more,” Brownell said. “Increasing portion sizes are a serious problem.”
Brownell was highly critical of the food industry’s use of “guerilla marketing” strategies.
“Guerilla marketing is when you don’t know that you’re being marketed to,” Brownell said. “People don’t really know how much it affects them.”
The marketing strategies employed by the food industry make it difficult to avoid exposure to their advertisements. Brownell said the typical American young person sees 10,000 advertisements for food per year, about 95 percent of which are for unhealthy foods . Companies place misleading nutritional facts and popular cartoon characters on their products in an effort to encourage parents and children to buy their products, he said.
Product placement in movies and television shows is another way that companies increase exposure to their products, and the food industry is pursuing new frontiers, such as virtual advertising and marketing through cell phones, Brownell said.
He said the government has failed to regulate the food industry properly and promote a culture in which children and parents can make sound nutritional choices.
Some audience members said they found Brownell’s lecture informative and effective.
“I’ve heard the buzz about obesity,” said Miles Ingram, an employee at Yale’s Temple Medical Center. “I thought the way he put it was very convincing.”
Jessie Borelli GRD ’08 said Brownell “presented a new side” of the obesity issue.
“I think it was effective because the food environment is so pervasive,” Borelli said. “Everyone is exposed to it all the time, but they are not necessarily aware.”