Kevin Richardson and the Economics of Obesity

Chili cheese fries

Kevin Richardson works in New York City as a personal trainer, and also puts a lot of thought into the obesity epidemic that encompasses children, adults, and even household pets. He says,

A studious look at the economics of food production provides considerable insight into the fact that overeating and excessive consumption of processed foods aren’t simply a matter of personal failing — but are requirements for the continued success of the U.S. food industry in its current form.

Richardson’s two-part series “The Economics Of Obesity — Why The Food Industry Needs Us To Overeat” is fairly long, and you’ll see some highlights of it here, but please don’t be fooled into thinking that you can skip Richardson’s article. It’s a classic.

He strongly believes that all Americans, even the most health-conscious, are bamboozled by advertising. In fact, people who think they are not brainwashed are probably the most brainwashed of all. In the spirit of the Childhood Obesity News piece on how to give your child a baloney detector, Richardson devotes a section of his article to the subject of “How To Protect Yourself From Marketing Messages To Eat More.”

He explains why the food industry finds it so necessary to target and manipulate kids into increasing the childhood obesity statistics:

With a limited number of calories that can possibly be consumed by the adult population, promotion to children to get them to eat more as well has become a standard part of the food industry’s advertising push over the past several decades.

He reminds us that the ideal consumer is the confused consumer. The goal of the food industry is to confuse us, and as a matter of sheer self-defense, we must always be vigilant and examine their every claim. This is especially difficult because, as Richardson also believes, all nutritional guidelines are politicized to some extent.

In Washington, while parts of the government spend multi-millions trying to stem the childhood obesity flood, other sections of it work actively, if indirectly, to guarantee that the conditions contributing to the epidemic will continue undisturbed. Legislators feel that they must bow to the food corporations’ every demand.

Richardson says,

The government has little choice but to be swayed by such lobbies as food sales in the U.S. account for 8% of the gross national product which works out to more than a trillion dollars in sales. Equally persuasive is the fact that the food industry employs 12% of the American labor force. So, Washington has no alternative but to look out for their interests — given the enormous impact food production has on the stability of our economy.

He addresses two very important questions: Why does the food industry try so hard to ruin public health and why does the government let it? The inner workings of the system, he believes, are much more complicated than we imagine. Two economic factors in particular are not often considered:

1. Food production in the United States is so efficient that it produces a food supply far greater than the caloric needs of the population.
2. In spite of profits that seem to be astronomical, the annual growth rate of the food industry has always been very low.

Richardson goes on to explain that what it boils down to is, American food corporations can’t survive unless they convince us to overeat. As seemingly wealthy as they are, their annual growth rate, he says, is not the kind of growth rate that puts stars in the eyes of stockholders — only 1% or 2% a year. As long as they get that, it doesn’t matter how many kids develop diabetes.

He explains how the overabundance of product causes small businesses to flounder and corporations to take over. Although the obesity epidemic is worldwide, he sees Americans as having a particular problem because we don’t tolerate high food costs. Consequently, producers have to cut corners wherever they can. That, he says, is how we got the industrial farming methods that are so destructive to the environment and a lot of other bad outcomes.

Producing junk food, Richardson says, is very important if profits are to remain high:

It isn’t possible to mark up the value of fresh fruit and vegetables very much other than giving it an organic label — but there are limits to how much consumers will pay for fruits and vegetables… To make matters worse, vegetable growers get as little as 5% of the market value when you purchase produce in a store… Again, the economics are stacked against healthy foods.

And, we’re into the mega portion size. Americans, by and large, would rather have a whole heap of cheap imitation food than have a smaller amount of nutritious food, even if the nutritious food is also cheap, or even if it’s free. (Have you ever tried to give away a bushel of zucchini? It ain’t easy.) Apparently, from the food industry’s point of view, the cost of the food itself is no big deal, compared to their other expenses.

Richardson says,

One of the easiest ways companies get you to eat more is by increasing serving sizes. By making the bigger serving portions cheaper than the smaller ones consumers inevitably go for the better deal and end up eating more in the process. It’s a masterful strategy as you have to pay more to eat less.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Economics Of Obesity — Why The Food Industry Needs Us To Overeat,” NaturallyIntense.net, 05/05/11
Source: “ The Economics Of Obesity — How The Food Industry Makes Us Eat More — Part 2 of 2,” NaturallyIntense.net, 05/10/11
Image by Marshall Astor, used under its Creative Commons license.

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