A Social Blueprint to Cure Obesity

Alright, here it is – the third and (perhaps) final installment of my “how do we cure obesity” series.

For those that missed, here are parts one and two.

In part one, I made the argument that if government intervention into our collective problem with obesity is ever going to work, we need to….

  1. Enact junk food taxes
  2. Implement tax credits that promote health/fitness and a rocking set of abs.
  3. Keep the junk food taxes separate from general tax revenues
  4. Funnel those tax revenues to the sort of grassroots projects that are close to the people that actually need the support and who can do it cheaper & better

In part two, I argued that if we let the government and their “experts” make the decisions about which foods get taxed and which programs get funded…this program is doomed. Political agendas trump common sense.

It’s our government and our tax dollars. And if we want to change how those tax dollars are being spent, we need to get more involved and force our politicians to make the changes we want. And thanks to the evolution of social media, we already have the technology required to create an effective political campaign driven by “normal” people. It’s already worked for the Obama presidential campaign and the Tea Partiers.

But first, we need some ideas to rally around.

So, in today’s post, we’re going to do a bit of a brainstorming session. Hopefully we come up with some great ideas.

Junk Food Taxes

  • Which foods get taxed?
  • Who decides what is “junk food” and what isn’t?

These are the two big questions regarding junk food taxes that I keep bumping into around the internet. Here are my suggestions:

  • At least initially, we tax only the most obvious junk foods – potato chips, candy, twinkies, soft drinks, pizza, nachos, ice cream, deep fried nuggets of all sorts…
  • Those obvious junk food choices are made by the general public via online polling.

Tax Credits / Government Spending

What do we do with all of that junk food tax money?

  • We fund programs and activities designed to improve our health & reduce our obesity
  • We base funding on participation & results rather than promises & expense

That way we end up funding the programs that give us the most bang for the buck.

For example, the idea of tax credits for gym memberships is being discussed in jurisdictions all over North America. Unfortunately, legislators are taking the approach of offering a flat rate tax credit to taxpayers who purchased a health club membership.

My problem with that approach is that health clubs thrive on members who sign up, show up for a month or two and then disappear…while continuing to pay dues. That’s good for the health club but bad for the health & waistline of the health club member.

My suggestion is to base the tax credit on participation.

With this model, we would see the creation of grassroots fitness clubs all around the country.

What else can we do with the junk food tax money?

We can fund:

  • Urban farming
  • Urban grocery stores that carry healthier food choices
  • Farming designed to produce nutrients rather than calories
  • Organic farming
  • Drug free meat (or at least almost drug free meat)

We can also amend our current food subsidies in order to promote “healthy” food production. A little less corn & soy and a little more fruits & vegetables. A little less factory and a little more farm

Anything else?

If we are going to spend tax dollars on feeding our kids at school, we should make sure that that food is designed to promote their health. The current setup doesn’t work. Too much bureaucracy and political interference.

Bring the decision making process back down to the grassroots level. Get parents involved. Get the kids involved.

Keeping the junk food taxes separate from general tax revenues

Up here in Canada, politicians sold us on a gasoline tax by promising that the money generated by this tax would be plowed back into the infrastructure of our roads.

Makes sense right – drivers paying for the roads they travel on via a consumption tax.

The only problem is that the tax revenue was dropped into the black hole of general tax revenue…and our roads continue to crumble.

If we’re going to increase taxes under the guise of improving health & reducing obesity, then we should demand that those tax dollars be spent as promised.

Grassroots Projects v.s. National Programs

Perhaps it’s the libertarian side of my personality, but I firmly believe that the best type of charitable or social service programs are those that are community based.

For example, in my hometown of Toronto, a number of urban farming groups and farmers markets have sprung up in the last couple of years. People are plowing under their backyard lawns and planting rows of organic vegetables. Some people are even pushing for bylaw amendments so that they can keep chickens in a backyard hen house.

All in an attempt to improve their own health.

Meanwhile the federal Canadian government spends millions on advertising (online, print, radio & tv) telling us that exercise is good for us. As if we didn’t already know that exercise is good for us.

And they do such a half-assed job with this advertising.

seriously…does this get you excited to exercise?

How do we get people excited about health & fitness?

Last week, a billion or so people skipped work so that they could stand in line for hours and hours just so they could buy an Apple iPad. And most of those people bought the iPad because it was the cool thing to do. They already owned an iPod and an iMac. They didn’t need an iPad…but they sure as heck wanted one.

What Apple did was turn that want into a need.

That’s what we should be trying to do.

  • Make health & fitness sexy
  • Make us crave that fit body
  • Make us need to have a six pack.

If the government is going to spend money on using media to motivate us to exercise & eat right, maybe they should hire the marketing gurus at Apple to design the marketing strategy.

So, what do you think?

Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, a social media nerd and a student of nutrition and exercise science. Since 2008, Doug has brought his real-world experience online via his health & fitness blog, Health Habits.

24 Comments

  1. Dave

    March 29, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    More simply, before you can fix a problem, you have to stop causing it. in the US, we subsidize the farming of corn, making all products derived from corn less expensive and more available. This should not be decreased, it should be ELIMINATED. Also, our food stamps program covers REGULAR SODAS, and we feed our children JUNK FOOD in SCHOOL LUNCHES! Socialism is not the solution to our problem. It is the CAUSE of our problem. That and crony capitalism/fascism.

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  3. Dagny Kight

    September 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Hmmmm, I don’t know about this one, buddy. Correct me if I’m wrong but I tend to think of Canadians as a bit like Europeans and Europeans have a completely different view of government and taxation than Americans do. So recall the outrage when the mayor of New York City wanted to ban sodas over 16oz. American liberals AND conservatives found all kinds of reasons to throw a hissy over that!

    What I think should happen to the US—We need to change what’s being served in schools. That’s something we CAN do and people could get behind it. Our First Lady is trying to work on that. I do not have kids; I do not know much about how well her initiatives are working out. It’s also my understanding that “treat foods” are part of EVERY activity and event kids are into these days, in some part because food processors are sponsoring them. When do we get the Apple Growers of America to start being a sponsor for something instead of Coca Cola and Keebler?

    I’m a very liberal Democrat but I have to come off a bit Republican when I say that I do not like the idea of the government getting involved with our food beyond passing quality and labeling standards. Again, I’m just speaking for the US here.

    Macro shifts occur when social paradigms begin to change, like when smoking became less popular and when homosexuality became more mainstream. But we run up against a tough moral issue with weight. When overweight is depicted as negative and unhealthy, it comes off as a value judgment against the fat person instead of the fat—a fine shade of difference! I try very hard to influence people to separate the temporal state of being fat from their value as a person but it’s a tough battle. Heck, I wrote a whole book about it!!

    Keep fighting the good fight, my friend. Let’s all keep putting our heads together on this one and getting the word out!

    • Douglas Robb

      September 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      Hey Dagny,

      Us Canucks come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and political persuasions. Right now, our Prime Minister is to the right of your President…considering the pre-existing gov’t structures – division of power between federal / state-provincial gov’ts, etc.

      We have been trending more right wing in the past 10-15 yrs.

      Re gov’t involvement in the “war against obesity”, I share your skepticism. However, I disagree with your belief that “Macro shifts occur when social paradigms begin to change, like when smoking became less popular” I would argue that smoking became less popular because of the anti-smoking programs – package labelling, PSAs, etc.

      And because of the success of that program, I think a similar program of “healthy propaganda” is necessary.

      On the other hand, I agree that we NEED to move away from 1. focusing on obesity instead of health and 2. moralizing obesity & shaming the obese. It’s mean spirited and ineffective at best.

      That’s why if I was in charge of this program, I would make it all about health, fitness, nutrition…all positive and no negative. And I would saturate the airwaves with celebrity endorsements..selling us on a healthy lifestyle just like they currently sell us on buying stuff we don’t need.

  4. Brit

    July 18, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    7:30 to 5:15 does not include my commute. But I’m on a schedule my work has where you work 9 hour days Monday through Thursday, and then you get every other Friday off. (The Friday I do work is just 7:30-4:15.)

    So including commute, and the fact that my work is lenient on starting exactly on time as long as you put in all your time, lately I’ve been away from my apartment from 7:15 or 7:30 to about 6:00 or 6:15. But we’ve been busy lately, so hopefully now that things are a little slower I can get that return time down to ~5:45 or so. Maybe. But that’s coming straight home and not stopping at the grocery store, or doing any shopping, or anything like that.

  5. Brit

    July 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I was in school, not working 7:30 am to 5:15 pm, so I had more time to work out. I wasn’t in a place where people bring in treats all the time, and since my willpower is nonexistent I always try them.

    • healthhabits

      July 18, 2011 at 5:01 am

      Even though it’s the hardest muscle to develop, your willpower is just like a muscle – research

      Re time – does the 7:30 – 5:15 include your commute or do you actually work 10 hr days x 5 days a week?

  6. Brit

    July 17, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Stumbled across this again the other day.

    “It kills me when you say that you’re “obviously not going to get” a six pack.”

    Well, since I’ve regained 2/3 of the weight I’d lost at that point, I’d say it’s pretty obvious to me.

    • healthhabits

      July 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

      @Brit

      What were you doing when you were losing the excess weight?
      What were you doing when you regained it?

  7. Toni Taylor

    June 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Garry,
    That is a very interesting way to tax food. Obviously, the more sugar and fat content, the more the tax. However, my mom smokes and although it pisses her off to be taxed like hell on her cancer sticks, it doesn’t stop her from buying them. On the news the other night they presented the question, “Would you stop buying/smoking cigarettes if the packages/cartons had images of black lungs or a skull and crossbones?” My mom didn’t wait for them to finish the question before she was blurting out, “NO!” I think a higher tax on fat and sugar would help detour some people, but not all people.

    This is definitely an interesting discussion post but I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there is any one “perfect” solution. My aunt says eating “healthy”, meaning lots of fruits and veggies, is more expensive than eating boxed crap. And we all know that most of the time buying organic is more expensive than not buying organic. I really think the healthier foods should be more affordable than the “junk” foods and if that means higher taxes on the “junk”, then maybe people like my aunt would start buying and eating healthier. Btw, my aunt and uncle are retired and on a very fixed income, so a budget is very important to them. They buy the food they can afford. But it pains me when they choose crap over fresh fruits and veggies because it’s cheaper.

    I really don’t think that this is a lack of education about what is and isn’t healthy because there is a ton of information out there and most people have access to various means of technology to gain that information. Unfortunately, I think this is like dealing with my 7 year old: If there are cookies in the house, she wants them. If the cookies are not around, she tends to forget they exist. So as long as there is unhealthy, high fat, and/or high sugar foods available, there will always be buyers.

  8. Garry

    June 23, 2011 at 2:28 am

    Let’s not get too hung up on what is “classified” as “junk” or not. Use a sliding tax scale instead. It’s really about fat and sugar calories in the food.

    Introduce a “percent of total calories” tax for the content of fat and refined sugars on all foods. The higher the percentage that fat and sugar content contributes to the total calories, the higher the consumption tax. This would naturally leave fresh fruits a veggies untaxed, while making the unhealthy ones expensive. Either that or tax the crap out of sugar, fats and oils at the source.

  9. tanned_toni

    June 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    @healthhabits

    LOL! I’ve pissed off a few doctors to say the least! Thank you for responding. I do agree with you on the taxes and tax credits you mentioned originally and I didn’t mean to come across as if I was attacking you. I just feel sympathy for any person, male or female, that KNOWS something is wrong and continues to reach out for help from the medical community who don’t have the knowledge themselves to make you better. I used to think that calories in, calories out was all I needed to look good. But for those of us with hormonal issues, it’s so much deeper!

    During my graduate program in media design, I worked on a thesis project in which I chose to partner Disney with Action for Healthy Kids – you can see it here: http://designeyepeal.com/campaign.html. My idea was to take the well-known brand of Disney and target kids in their schools between the ages of 4-10. The goal, in theory, was to make healthy eating, physical activity, and hygiene a part of the regular curriculum and to regularly promote it throughout the school.

    During my research for my paper, I was shocked to find out that food and drink companies spend BILLIONS each year to specifically target children. It’s appalling! We has adults, especially parents, need to ensure that our children get good wholesome foods and lots of activity and exercise. My daughter is smothered with ads and commercials for sugary cereals, drinks, bars, cookies, and more each time she watches Nickelodeon. Therefore, she is limited to one 30 minute program a day to limit her time in front of the TV where food marketers are bombarding her. All fast food companies use toys and games to lure your children to them. It should be illegal for food and drink companies to target children! Every now and again, my daughter will ask me for a cereal (that is strategically placed at her height level) that I don’t approve while shopping for groceries. The answer is always no.

    Don’t get me wrong, she’s six and loves sweets like most kids do. But these things are treats such as during a birthday party or Halloween. I don’t buy Twinkies, fish sticks, chips, cookies or anything else that fits in a box. It’s important that adults take more responsibility for the CRAP they feed their kids and don’t buy into the advertising that is controlling their spending. Maybe imposing high taxes on this stuff will make them think twice about putting it in their grocery cart, I don’t know. But we need to fight back against these food and drink companies that are working to get rich by pushing their poisons!

  10. tanned_toni

    June 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

    I don’t disagree with you in your ways to help cure obesity. But you are assuming that everyone who is overweight is this way from junk food and lack of exercise. I don’t eat junk food and believe in a whole foods approach. I gained 65 pounds AFTER my daughter was born during her first year of life. I ate right, exercised, tweaked and re-tweaked my diet and eating habits to no avail. I kept going to doctors and complaining that I was tired and fat and I needed help. It took 5 and 1/2 years for them to realize I had an under active thyroid. I’ve noticed some improvements but my body is holding on tightly to the fat I’ve gained. After a saliva test and blood work, they have now figured out I’m estrogen dominant. I’m now on biodentical hormones and am now seeing my eating and exercising habits pay off. But it’s been a very long road and lots of frustration to get to this point!! I know most people eat crap and don’t exercise and that’s why they are fat! But there are a few of us that exercise and eat right but can’t seem to lose. I knew something was wrong, it just took the doctors a long ass time to find out what it was. Sometimes, there’s more to it than just twinkies and kool-aid.

    • healthhabits

      June 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm

      @TT

      I never, never, never assume that a person is obese simply because they eat too much / move too little. I can’t stand that argument. It’s lazy & most often mean-spirited.

      In this article, I discuss how diff hormones affect where & how much BF we pack on our bodies. Messed up hormone profiles are no joke. A buddy of mine is going through a very long & expensive investigation of his hormone profiles – lots of tests & lots of drugs/supplements in an attempt to get his hormones “normal”.

      Congrats on persevering through your hormonal journey. By this point, I bet you could teach most doctors a thing or two.

  11. Andreas

    January 4, 2011 at 7:34 am

    though taxing junk food is all well and good the problem lies here pizzas burgers chips/fries are not unhealthy it what there made from and how they are cook that makes them unhealthy instead of tax on junk food per-say may be tax the like of ronnie mac and burger kings and there like,

    like you say it should be from grass routes pre-school/kinder age teaching good habbits,

    * Make health & fitness sexy
    * Make us crave that fit body
    * Make us need to have a six pack.

    this I have a problem with before I had op for my health condition none of this would of worked it would of just turn me off but again starting with grass routes making fitness fun thing get out of the habbit of being competetive but thoughts who show sign of talent then introduce competion to make them better shoud aim for making fitness a life long thing the three thing you hit on the extreme side when middle ground would be for better.

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  13. ClodaghEliz

    July 13, 2010 at 4:34 am

    * Make health & fitness sexy
    * Make us crave that fit body
    * Make us need to have a six pack

    I agree with Brit, the third point has left me feeling quite uneasy. As somebody who has worked for over 10 years with Eating Disorder sufferers, I have seen time and time again the tragic consequences of society pushing the value of a six pack/the perfect body. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting a six pack but I do not feel that anybody should be pushing it out there to the masses. In reality nobody actually needs a six pack but we DO need a healthy, fit body and a healthy attitude to that body.

    • healthhabits

      July 13, 2010 at 5:39 am

      I have gone back over that post at least a dozen times since I wrote it….wondering about those 3 points.

      You and Brit raise a legitimate concern.

      Here’s my thinking on this issue.

      When it comes to marketing anything to the general public – sex sells. Sad but true.
      Anyone trying to market something because it’s “good for you” is going to underperform their competitor using sex to market a similar product.

      That is part of the reason why a common sense / health first marketing campaign to promote a healthy lifestyle is doomed to failure. Currently, the first lady is twisting corporate arms & spending a lot of financial & political capital trying to turn around America’s problem with childhood obesity. Local & state governments are using stimulus money for anti-obesity programs.

      And these programs are probably doomed to failure because they fail to excite the general public.

      And that’s what I am trying to get at with my 3 points – trying to find a way to make health & fitness exciting enough to the general public that they WANT to exercise and they WANT to eat healthy, etc….

      WANT is obviously the operative word here.

      And for the vast majority of the buying public, SEX sells.

      Ergo, I made the leap to use sex to sell health & fitness. And yet, I still feel uneasy about it..like you & Brit

  14. Kylie

    July 11, 2010 at 3:54 am

    Wow that ad made me really want to go buy a dog…didn’t really make me want to exercise though, especially that bit about outdoors – even in bad weather!

  15. Brit

    April 14, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Oh, I know change is possible. I know I can lose weight–or if not lose weight, at least gain muscle, drop sizes, and get a little healthier. However, I don’t think everyone who exercises is going to get a six pack, and I don’t think someone who slims down should be made to feel bad just because they’re not ripped. That’s what I meant.

    Well, I’m trying to get back into keeping a food diary on my WordPress site, so I guess you could watch that and see what you think. Like I said in Monday’s post, I probably won’t follow all the advice I get, but I will at least consider it. Right now I’m trying to work on snacking less, cause I know that’s one of my downfalls.

  16. Phil

    April 14, 2010 at 7:59 am

    what about eliminating the billions in subsidies for unnecesary grain production? those grains are so cheap that they are processed in a million different ways to make cheap junk foods. meanwhile, eating a vegetable based diet is expensive. talk about a perverse incentive.

    • healthhabits

      April 14, 2010 at 8:12 am

      I agree 100% – shifting the subsidies from grains to veg could be a great & revenue neutral solution.

      For some reason, I still worry that we would end up with the same food producers just making different convenience/junk food out of vegetables instead of grains. I know that I am cynical about this but I still think some form of public (us, not gov’t) oversight is required to get what we want/need

  17. Brit

    April 13, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    National taxes decided on by online polling? I can only see things going wrong with that.

    “That’s what we should be trying to do.

    * Make health & fitness sexy
    * Make us crave that fit body
    * Make us need to have a six pack.”

    The first two are okay, but the last one makes me uneasy. Not everyone’s going to end up with a six pack…that kind of brings to mind the unattainable beauty standards for women based on advertising and models. How about just encouraging people to eat healthier and exercise more? I’m not seeing a whole lot of weight loss right now, but I’m trying to keep myself motivated with the idea that just exercising regularly is making me healthier. You coming out and saying that I need a six pack, which I’m obviously not going to get, is just going to depress me and make me want to give up.

    • healthhabits

      April 14, 2010 at 8:32 am

      Brit,

      I truly admire the hard work that you have been putting in between your gym workouts and your martial arts.

      It kills me when you say that you’re “obviously not going to get” a six pack.

      In my experience, the best thing that I can do for my clients is get them to believe that real significant change is possible – not easy – but possible. Once that mind shift happens, it becomes all about applying different training/diet techniques until we hit on the right formula(s).

      I wish that you could spend a couple of months working with me.

      Do you remember the post I did about David Smith
      and his amazing weight loss. No way does David make this transformation without believing that it is possible.

      Obviously your health is more important than your bodyfat %. Extra bodyfat is just one component of health.

      But, if you’re still not losing weight while doing my facebook workout + martial arts, there is obviously still a problem with your diet. In the past two months, I have had two new clients lose 16 and 8 lbs respectively following this workout and shifting to a grain free diet.

      It hasn’t been easy for them but we discussed their options and they decided to go ahead with my plan.

      We need to approach this unemotionally and look at what’s working and what’s not working. Life is full of choices. If they way you eat is making weight loss difficult, you either make changes to correct the problem or you don’t. It’s as simple as that – no judgement, no lecture – just choice.

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