The Unhealthy Economics.  

This past week I turned 50. And as a result, took a moment to reflect on where I was, where I am and where I'm going in terms of health. Everything I have ever done, or will ever be able to do, has and will be determined by my level of health. Eight years ago at a health and wellness convention a speaker boldly proclaimed from the stage, “There's a small demographic of people getting healthier as they age.” And I made the decision to be one of those people.

The speaker wasn't a health guru, scientist or supplement developer, he was an economist. Paul Zane Pilzer, professor of economics, author and advisor to two former US presidencies, shared how the subjects of economics and health are closely connected.

Pilzer shared his own health story – typical of many in their 40's and 50's today – of how in his mid-40's he found himself overweight with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and on the fast track to a heart attack - just like his father and his uncles. In an effort to try and avoid the same fate, Pilzer started looking at the business of health. What he found helped him to make decisions that turned his health around. Here's where the economics came in.

We all understand that purchasing food is indeed a business transaction and someone is making money. And of course the more we consume, the more we buy, the more we buy, the more those in the food business make. But you can't get people to eat more than they need or want, right? Wrong. Everyday people eat food they wish they hadn't, in quantities they never imagined they could put away and later wonder why they did it. Food is big business and it continues to expand, the waistlines of people in North America are proof. Pilzer went on to explain how this is happening.

We all have something called a satiety level. When our satiety level with a particular food is reached, we stop eating that particular food. For example, say you've never eaten an orange before and someone gives you one to try. You bite into a fresh, juicy, sweet, ripe orange and it tastes amazing. You love it. You're offered a second orange and you take it. Same thing, you dive right in, juice is running down your chin, it's amazing. You're offered a third orange and you eat that too, although less enthusiastically. It's good, but now you've had enough. Even though you'd never had an orange before now, you're not going to want to eat another orange right now. Tomorrow, maybe. Next week, for sure. But today your body is saying “I've had enough.”. The only way for companies to sell more food to someone that has had enough, is to bypass their satiety level. And that's exactly what they are doing.

What I heard next shocked and appalled me. As someone who worked with major food corporations to help increase their bottom line, Pilzer shared that the economics of the food industry are structured solely to generate sales and increase profits. For example, companies would conduct tests to determine the satiety levels for their product. They would then put strategies in place that would encourage the consumer to ignore the “I'm done” signal from the brain.

For instance, if it was determined that a person is satisfied after consuming an eight ounce individual bag of potato chips that comes as a side for your sandwich, the company will manufacture manufacture the bags at six ounces in an effort to get you to purchase another bag. Fast food restaurants work with chemists to make food addictive and therefore encouraging that upgrade to a larger order. In addition, food containing “empty calories” fills the hunger gap but does nothing to nourish our bodies. It's no wonder people are hungry again only an hour or two after a fast food meal. Keeping the nutritional value low or non-existent, allows costs to be kept low as well. And where do mal-nourished, overweight people who want a “good deal” on lunch go? Back to the fast food places.

Other factors weigh in as well. A basic sales principle is that it's always easier to market to an existing customer than to create a new customer. With that in mind, most marketing is directed to the overweight and obese population. An overweight person takes up the same number of spaces in the parking lot, they still only use one chair per person inside the restaurant, but an overweight person will typically order 25 percent more than someone of average weight.

Pilzer reminded the audience at this point that, shocking as these scenarios are, companies are not doing these things to be evil, they are doing it to make money. After all, it is a business, remember?

My point in telling this story today is that I am a firm believer that when we know better we do better. When we know things are being added to our food to alter our choices, when we understand that eating for convenience leaves us malnourished, and when we know the food industry's focus is on increasing revenue, we can decide to make choices that will increase our health. I can honestly say I am healthier, fitter and stronger than I was 10 years ago. It's not an exclusive club. You just have to decide to join.


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