Our industry must find the innovation within itself to fight obesity while increasing profits.

I haven’t written an editorial column in many years on obesity in America and its implications for the food and beverage industry. But after last month’s release of the “F as in Fat 2009” report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it became clear to me that it’s time for our industry to take the lead in solving the problem.

According to the report, two-thirds of American adults either are obese or overweight. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20%. In 1980, the national average for adult obesity was 15%. 

The current economic crisis, report authors say, could worsen the obesity epidemic because food prices, particularly for more nutritious foods, are expected to increase.

Even though more states have nutritional standards for school lunches, breakfasts and snacks stricter than current USDA requirements and better nutritional standards for foods sold on school premises, our children continue to gain weight.

The report calls for a “National Strategy to Combat Obesity” that would provide healthy foods and beverages to students at schools; increase the availability of affordable healthy foods; boost physical activity at schools; limit computer screen time; and encourage employers to provide workplace wellness programs.

All of these programs would help trim costs for health care, which is one of the most urgent issues our nation faces. Should our government and employers embrace unconventional strategies to reduce health costs such as hypnosis and monetary incentives for people to quit smoking or reduce food consumption? Maybe it’s worth a try.

The plethora of diet sodas and reduced calorie entrees and snacks our industry produces doesn’t seem to be helping. Nor do the healthy choices at fast-food outlets that consumers shy away from. As I see it, the answer lies in an extreme, cultural mind shift to more healthy and natural alternatives in smaller portions. 

It’s not going to be easy. Just as the sustainability trend gained traction when corporations learned they could simultaneously help save the planet and reduce operating costs, our industry must find the innovation within itself to fight obesity while increasing profits.