The Atlantic Online

The Invisible Barriers to Solving Obesity

Former Senior Fellow and Director, Food Policy Center

With two-thirds of American adults and one-third of our children either overweight or obese, it is clear that the regulations, strategies, and tactics deployed to reverse this albatross have been ineffective. What has dumbfounded me is that we rarely ask the following question: why has nothing worked?

So far, too much emphasis has been given to "being right" rather than fixing the problem. A "my way or the highway" mentality prevails. Many blame the food marketers for pushing junk foods. Others hold consumers responsible for not eating well or exercising. While each of these arguments has merit, neither camp has served up any lasting solutions.

We have spent countless years defending status quo positions or demonizing others for perpetuating obesity, but have overlooked the most basic aspect of the combatants—that is, their wiring. By this, I mean that we have not considered the core personality type of each entity that is a player in this ongoing obesity drama.

Why would this matter? Because each party involved in shaping America's obesity problem views the situation through a different lens. This is why the one-size-fits-all approaches that have been prevalent fall flat. Once we finally unlock the psyches of grocers, restaurateurs, packaged goods marketers, health advocates and activists, nutritionists, and consumers, we become privy to their motivations and limitations. When we understand what makes each party tick, we gain the knowledge to effect real, constructive change.

A simple way of describing each actor's behavior is by drawing a parallel to the elements: each player is either a solid, a liquid, or a gas.

Solids care about defending the status quo. They're traditional, risk averse, dislike change, and take either/or positions. More often than not, they focus on short-term needs. However, when they do make up their minds, they are capable of sticking with the game plan and carrying through to the end.

Conversely, gases bring creativity and a forward-looking perspective to the dialogue. They openly embrace change. In fact, the process of change is often the goal. Gases typically chide solids for not seeing the future and are accused by their solid brethren of being impractical and ivory-towerish.

Liquids serve as the bridge between solids and gases in that they are more likely to see the big picture and think strategically. They bring more of a win-win mentality to situations and can serve as a conduit to lasting solutions.

In the ensuing weeks, I will dissect the personality of each of the key players in the obesity debate one at a time. You will be able to gain a better understanding of how food executives think; what grocers don't want you to know; why restaurant chains promote combo meals and supersized beverages; why health advocates and activists push draconian solutions like soda taxes and ingredient bans; and why, with the exception of the most disciplined among us, consumers are doomed to fail with dieting and exercise.

More poignantly, you will see how barriers to progress have evolved when staunch solids like grocers and restaurant chains interact with the combustible food activist gases. I will also draw parallels to the behavior of political parties—care to guess which party is solid? Which one is more like gas? More importantly, at the end of this series of articles, you will understand how we got here and what viable solutions to the obesity epidemic can emerge that work for all invested parties.

Next time I will focus on the restaurant chains and provide a glimpse into who they are, how they think, and the real reasons behind larger portions.

Stay tuned.