I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

May 5, 2010

PepsiCo CEO: “If all consumers exercised … obesity wouldn’t exist”

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi tells Fortune Magazine that obesity is all our fault

FORTUNE: You’ve said that Pepsi should be part of the solution, not the cause, of obesity. How are you and PepsiCo planning to go about that?

Nooyi: If all consumers exercised, did what they had to do, the problem of obesity wouldn’t exist….

(Thanks to Fooducate for finding that one!)

So there you have it.  It’s all our fault! (Since that’s the case, maybe we should just stop buying PepsiCo products.)

Based on the above, I would be willing to bet that Nooyi would disagree with the following article’s conclusions.  I would also be willing to bet that most major food and beverage companies spend a lot of money not just on advertising, but on marketing research, too.

Neurophysiological Pathways to Obesity: Below Awareness and Beyond Individual Control, Deborah A. Cohen, Diabetes July 2008 vol. 57 no. 7 1768-1773

doi: 10.2337/db08-0163


I think Cohen makes some very good arguments, but I would quibble with her on two points.

One, she says “the suppositions that a change in genetics and/or metabolism is responsible for the increase in obesity over the past three decades are implausible due to lack of evidence of mutations over this short period of time….” But if changes in metabolism are being caused epigenetically by exposure to chemicals in the environment, the rate of such changes could be much more accelerated than the rate of mutations one would expect from random mutations to people’s DNA.

Two, she says that arguments that it is totally the individuals’ fault that they are overweight or obese imply that 30 years ago people had more self-control.  Well, frankly, maybe they did!  That should not be discounted as a possibility.  But I would tend to go with the argument that most of the problem is caused by eating more and not being active enough.

Having said that,  I think her arguments about why people are eating more are quite valid and that food and beverage manufacturers are probably not going to make eating less any easier.

For the sake of argument let’s say that food and beverage manufacturers actually do want you to eat and drink less (well, at least as long as you keep eating and drinking their products).

So which companies are going to willingly cede market share to other companies?  Umm … none?  So what does that mean?  It means that they’re going to continue marketing their products as aggressively as they have in the past.  (It’s like a tragedy of the common food court!)  They’re just going to try to use different techniques to persuade people to but their products.  “Healthy. Organic. Natural.”  Most importantly, “Much better for you than that other company’s products….”

Or perhaps they figure that if their products are going to make us overweight or obese, then they’ll just sell us drugs to deal with metabolic syndrome and other health problems later.  (Huh, I wonder if any of the big food and beverage companies own any pharmaceutical firms.  Or have invested in them?)

Anyway, in the article Cohen identifies what she says are 10 neurophysiological pathways that can lead people to make food choices subconsciously or, in some cases, automatically.

These pathways include reflexive and uncontrollable neurohormonal responses to food images, cues, and smells; mirror neurons that cause people to imitate the eating behavior of others without awareness; and limited cognitive capacity to make informed decisions about food.

Given that people have limited ability to shape the food environment individually and no ability to control automatic responses to food-related cues that are unconsciously perceived, it is incumbent upon society as a whole to regulate the food environment, including the number and types of food-related cues, portion sizes, food availability, and food advertising.

There is a growing consensus that the global obesity epidemic is the result of increasing urbanization and globalization, coupled with significant changes in the food environment. Obesity was initially highest in developed countries, but developing countries are quickly catching up.

The dominant thinking about obesity is that prevention and treatment is a matter of self-control and individuals making wiser food choices.  However, if this is really the case, then it implies that 30 years ago, before obesity increased, the population had more self-control and made wiser choices, and since then, our collective capacity for self-control must have diminished. It also suggests that people who live in other countries with lower rates of obesity have more self-control than Americans.

Just as the suppositions that a change in genetics and/or metabolism is responsible for the increase in obesity over the past three decades are implausible due to lack of evidence of mutations over this short period of time, the idea that the levels of personal responsibility, knowledge, intelligence, or moral character of a majority of the population are rapidly declining is also not a credible explanation of this phenomenon. It is unlikely that the nature of people has changed so dramatically. What has changed dramatically, however, is the environment in which we now live.

The availability and affordability of food has increased, due to a combination of technological advances in food preservation and packaging, increased food production and crop yields, and decreases in food costs relative to total income. In many parts of the world, food is available to all socioeconomic classes 24 h/day, 7 days a week. Moreover, while food advertising is not new, greater sophistication in marketing—including the development of branding, expanded use of vending machines and other mechanisms for self-service, technologies like eye movement tracking, and the application of social psychology — are all widely used to increase impulse buying and sales of highly processed foods. The techniques are increasingly more sophisticated, customized, and targeted to increase their efficacy. (Emphasis added.)

Could the increases in food availability, food salience, and the sophistication of modern marketing explain the obesity epidemic? If so, there must be neurophysiological pathways within humans that facilitate consumption of readily available food. Further, these mechanisms should affect all population groups similarly, regardless of income or level of education.

Although individuals with a higher level of education have lower rates, the prevalence of overweight and obesity is increasing in well-educated individuals at roughly the same rate as in less educated individuals. It is not unusual to see doctors, nurses, and dietitians possessing expert knowledge about nutrition and weight control who are themselves overweight or obese. Thus, it is likely that the mechanisms affecting food intake are not a matter of conscious decision making based on knowledge but are operating below the level of individual awareness and beyond individual control.

This article will review the interaction between the food environment and human neurophysiology to provide some initial evidence that, to a large extent, obesity is the consequence of automatic and largely uncontrollable responses to an environment with excessive food availability and aggressive and unrelenting cues that cause people to eat too much. Ten possible neurophysiological pathways are proposed that, in conjunction with unprecedented increases in food availability and food marketing, might explain how and why people consume more calories than they expend, especially without their full awareness or control of their behavior. The mechanisms include 1) physiological reflexive response to food and images of food; 2) inborn preferences for sugar and fat; 3) hardwired survival strategies, including foraging behaviors in response to food variety and novelty, also without awareness; 4) inability to judge volume or calories either through visual perception or internal signals of satiety; 5) natural tendency to conserve energy; 6) mirror neurons that lead people to mimic the behavior of other humans, often without awareness; 7) automatic stereotype activation; 8) conditioned responses that result in desire for food when confronted with food-related cues; 9) automatic responses to priming; and 10) limited cognitive capacity and self-regulatory control. In addition, speculations on specific mechanisms that deserve further study and direction for obesity control are discussed.

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