Unfair Practice: How The Food Industry Makes You Overeat 10

how the food industry makes you overeat

How The Food Industry Makes You Overeat

When I wrote the first version of this article the prevalence of obesity in the American population from 2007-2009 was a staggering 32.2% among adult men and even higher at 35.5% among adult women[5], fast forward to today and the rate has only increased as more than a third of the adult population (36.5%) is obese[6] with the prevalence of obesity even higher now in women (38.3%) than in men (34.3%). It isn’t a secret that the overabundance of food and the propensity towards overeating are key contributing factors to the lofty numbers of obese and overweight men, women and children here in the United States. But very seldom is the economics and politics discussed of why Americans eat the way the do and what really brought us to this unfortunate juncture in history. It might seem a simple cause and effect relationship that overeating makes us overweight and that as a nation we need to eat less and better control our dietary habits. But is it really that simple? The worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008[7], with large increases in Europe as well, so is it somehow that people in the developed part of the world all have some innate personal weakness that prevents us from not overeating, or are there significant external factors at work? A studious look at the economics of modern westernized food production provides considerable insight into the fact that overeating and excessive consumption of processed foods isn’t simply a matter of personal failing- but are carefully orchestrated events that are critical to the the continued success of the U.S. food industry and other global conglomerates. Said differently, without massive amounts of food consumption above and beyond what is healthy by most American adults, the U.S. economy could fall into a severe recession.  Given those stakes, it should not surprise us that almost everything we hear or see relating to how and what we should eat is influenced in one way or another by major food corporations and our governments. From seemingly obvious advertising, to not-so-obvious processed food product friendly studies and government issued dietary recommendations and trendy “health foods” that suddenly become popular. That we are mostly unaware of the effectiveness of advertising and public relations in making us eat more is in itself a testament to its success. Food companies spend upwards of 33 billion dollars a year promoting their wares to the public, seventy percent of those funds are used to promote processed convenience foods such as candy, snacks, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and desserts compared to the paltry 2.2% which goes towards the encouraging consumption of fruit, vegetables, grains or beans.[1,2] The sense of confusion experienced by many Americans in to matters related to diet and what is or isn’t healthy, is a deliberate result of advertising dollars, a trend easily visible among lower income individuals who use considerable amounts of their subsidies on items such as soda.[8] While trendy and higher priced supermarket chains encourage the consumption of junk foods under the guise of low carb, low fat, gluten free or organic among higher income members of the public with the focus there being on making more people believe they are eating healthy while they consume the very processed foods and beverages that lead to overeating.

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Understanding The Impact of The Food Industry On Our Eating Habits

Some would ask why the food industry would go to such ends to undermine public health and more importantly, why our government would allow such things to happen? Some answer with the overly simplistic refrain that food corporations are inherently evil but as emotionally satisfying as such explanations may be, it still leaves the real question unanswered and we are left unaware of the inner workings of a system that can often mislead us if we don’t fully understand it.

“Know your enemy and know yourself and in a thousand battles you will always be victorious” –Sun Tsu

Today many people who think they are eating well are overweight.

Unfortunately, most people who have problems with weight gain follow what they believe to be relatively healthy diets.

When I started personal training twenty-five years ago in Trinidad, there was never any mystery as to why some of the people who worked with me were overweight. They understood very clearly that their weight gain was caused by eating too much of the wrong foods. They could readily identify what those foods were. They also knew that remedying their situation meant regular exercise and following a diet of natural foods, fruits and vegetables while avoiding processed food products. Fast forward to my practice today in New York City, where over the last fifteen years, most of the overweight men and women who start our training program don’t understand how and why they put on weight. While admitting to the occasional indulgence here and there the majority firmly believed that they were following a relatively healthy diet and were baffled by the fact that they gained as much weight as they did even while taking care to “eat healthy” by choosing foods that were organic, low fat, gluten free, or natural. It’s a horrible deception as most of the products sold under the healthy food banner do little but add an abundance of empty calories and are designed to be easily overeaten. Given such deceit, it’s hard not to see food corporations as evil troll-like entities bent on destroying our health but the explanation is a bit more involved.

The reason why companies work so diligently to sabotage our health with messages of overconsumption of unhealthy foods has to do with economics and with the limitations of our profit driven society. Corporations are just that: corporations. They don’t have conflicts of conscience or moral dilemmas as they aren’t human beings capable of such abstractions. A corporation is an entity whose survival relies completely on its ability to amass growing profits for its shareholders and the ethics of any system revolve around what is required to sustain the life of said system. That said, without profit corporations cease to exist and so any practice that generates revenue becomes fair game. With regards to food production here in the United States, there are two inter-related economic factors that most of us don’t think about very often. They are that:

  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
overeating with overabundance of supermarket choices

The United States produces far more food than the population can consume which is a direct cause of the need to make consumers overeat


The Overabundance of Food and Its Effects on How the Food Industry Operates

The development of agricultural technologies have allowed American farmers (if you can still call them that) to become more efficient and productive while using less labor. Therefore, the American food supply is now large enough to feed everyone in the country twice over- even after exports.[3] As encouraging as this may sound, it does present some very finite limits if more food being produced than people in this country can eat. Even the most voracious consumer can only eat but so much, so in order to be successful, food companies not only have to aggressively promote their products as being superior but also must convince consumers to eat more. Much more. Economically speaking, overeating is a required condition for the survival of American food corporations because it is the only way they can generate profits that are large enough to satisfy their shareholders.

Tying in with the quandary of an overabundant food supply is the problem of limited market growth. With so many different products on the market, the annual growth rate of the food industry is only one or two percentage points. Thus, companies do their utmost to ensure that nothing interferes with this growth as it isn’t very much to begin with. Billions are thus spend in advertising and also in influencing government officials, nutritional authorities and the media to either say that their products are healthy or say nothing that could be construed as negative about their products. Lobbyists from the industry pressure Congress to see that no restrictions are placed on the consumption of their foods and 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 be over a trillion dollars in sales.[3] 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. We tend to see our government as a system designed to protect the interests of its citizens and forget that for our current society to continue, they must also consider the well-being of corporations within its borders.


The Political Consequences Of Food Overproduction

The US need to protect the prosperity of the food conglomerates politicizes all nutritional guidelines. Therefore, policies as words like ‘eat less’, ‘don’t eat’ and ‘bad foods’ are vehemently opposed by lobby groups and seldom find their way into any public statements. Bear in mind that the government also supports financially the food industry to make sure that their profits remain high so it would be ludicrous to think that they would do anything to jeopardize an industry that they help sustain. Our tax dollars subsidize everything from price supports to marketing and food promotion programs. So, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that the government actively works to promote higher consumption levels of foods that may not necessarily be good for us. The recent revelation that the US Department of Agriculture had been working with fast food restaurants to increase the amount of cheese that people eat in pizzas while the administration talks a fighting a war against obesity is a classic example. There is often much going on under the surface. The average citizen isn’t necessarily aware that the government’s public message isn’t always congruent with what goes on behind closed doors.

The Effects of Food Industry Advertising on Public Eating Habits
Can bread make you gain weight?

Food advertising makes it hard to determine what to eat

The influence of the American food industry doesn’t stop with convincing Washington to promote their interests, but reaches deep into our very hearts and minds through omnipresent advertising. Cut throat public relations campaigns are essential in an environment where there is such an overabundance of product. Our enormously high food production rates here in the United States brings about fierce competition among brands. So much so that it creates giant conglomerates as companies merge as a way to reduce competition and increase overall influence. Small companies simply can’t compete against monster corporations with billions in revenue and they are inevitably bought out and assimilated into the larger conglomerates. It’s a perfectly legal activity but it does lead to some degree of deception on the consumer end as buying out the competition creates the illusion that consumers have more choices than they really do. Only three companies, Philip Morris (you might know them better as Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing), ConAgra and RJR-Nabisco accounted for 20% of the market in 1997.[1] With the growing popularity of organic foods, the corporate Goliaths were quick to step in and buy out almost all of the small scale organic farms and companies who made products that they public loved to support. You never get the memo announcing the sale, nor is there much of anything in the news as they do their best to keep any such acquisitions as quiet as possible. You’ll just see your favorite local brands in more supermarkets than before in larger quantities with a significant increase in the amount of advertising for it. All geared towards making you eat more.


Why Making Junk Food Is An Important Part Of Keeping Profits High

potatoes-into-chipsIn 2002, we had 320,000 different food items for sale here in the U.S. with one small problem- supermarket shelves only have room for 50,000 products.[2] Given such an outlandish surplus, foods today have to appeal to consumers while not costing too much as the American public as a whole is not willing to spend very much on what they eat. Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food- which might seem like a lot to those of us who live here, but it is far less than what is spent in other developed countries. Europeans spend 15-17% of their income in food, the Japanese spend 20% and people in poorer countries spend half to as much as 70% of their income on food. American consumers however will not tolerate such high food costs, and so to keep prices low, food producers cut corners whenever they can. This means using farming models that aren’t always best practices for the environment or the animals involved, but ones that yield the most profit from lower overhead costs. Food producers also increase their profits by making more processed products. For example, by turning corn (which is dirt cheap and doesn’t bring much in terms of mark up profit) into corn snacks (which are relatively expensive), they increase the value of a basic foods. That these foods are for the most part nutritionally worthless isn’t the point- people will buy it, it doesn’t cost much to make and the profit margins make it worthwhile. Thus cheap rice is made into expensive organic rice crackers and inexpensive potatoes become pricey chips and French fries.

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 and they don’t sell as well as processed foods. To make matters worse, vegetable growers get as little as 5% of the market value when you purchase produce in a store while poultry and meat producers get anywhere from 50 to 60% of the final retail costs. Again, the economics are stacked against healthy foods. So calls to action by eating more fruits and vegetables won’t do much if food growers make such relatively little profits. Almost 70% of the 33 billion dollars spent on food advertising goes towards persuading the public to eat more candy, snacks, soft drinks, desserts and alcoholic beverages. The fruit, vegetable and grain sectors make up only 2.2%[3] of those advertising dollars while the USDA spends less than 300 million dollars a year on education on healthy eating. This number isn’t completely an accurate figure as most of those funds go towards agricultural research projects so the total amount dedicated to promoting better food choices is far less. To say the odds are against the messages of not overeating and avoiding junk foods would be an understatement of the highest degree.



The Ideal Consumer Is A Confused Consumer

Creating a confused consumer is one way the food industry makes us eat more

Confusing the public about what is healthy and what is not makes it easier to sell junk foods.

One of the most harmful aspects of the food industry lobby is the exploitation of single nutrient studies. Food companies help fund research centered on the potential health benefits of single nutrients and then use the results of these studies to justify ridiculous health claims on their labels. There is considerable confusion created by the mixed messages and constantly changing ‘nutritional news’ when one study reportedly finds a food product to be healthy one day and another study finds it to be harmful the next. Such confusion works to the advantage of food producers as confused consumers are more likely to believe the questionable health claims on their products. The influence of the food conglomerates is frightening and far more insidious than we like to think. The heart healthy check mark of the American Heart Association is one of the most recognized consumer health symbols in America- yet it has been brazenly displayed on the sides of boxes of Lucky Charms, Trix, and Cocoa Puff cereals, in addition to Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drinks, Healthy Choice’s Caramel Swirl Ice Cream and Mazola Corn oil. None of these products are remotely healthy by any stretch of the imagination, yet somehow they were able to secure backing from one of the most prominent and trusted health authorities in the country. I will leave you to your own conclusions as to how that happens.


How The Food Industry Makes You Eat More 

One of the easiest ways to make consumers eat more is to make the larger sizes cheaper.

The other way food companies increase their profits is by making you eat more. While no one likes to admit to being manipulated, the rising levels of obese and overweight men, women and children here in the U. S. show that the food companies have been enormously successful at manipulating us to eat more. 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. Interestingly enough, this increase in advertising focus coincides directly with the term Adult Onset Diabetes being officially changed to Type II diabetes given the alarmingly high number of children that are developing it today. It’s hardly a coincidence. In the years 1976-1980 the rate of obesity among preschoolers aged 2-5 was only 5.0%. A rate that doubled to 10.4% in the years 2007-2008. The figures get worse as the children get older as obesity rates among those aged 6-11 jumped from 6.5% to 19.6% during the same periods and increased from 5.0 % to 181% among adolescents aged 12-19.[4] Focusing on getting kids to eat more isn’t the only way food companies increase consumer eating habits- adults are equally targeted by shrewd policies that go unnoticed by most of us.

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. Now it might seem that the food industry loses money by giving you bigger portions in restaurants and packaged products, but it’s sound economics in terms of their profits. The cost of food production is quite low relative to labor and the aforementioned factors used to increase the retail price of the original food. So, by encouraging larger portions and increasing the cost of smaller ones- you make people buy more and eat more. It’s a relatively easy way to increasing profits without increasing production, but it creates unhealthy serving sizes and a population that doesn’t think twice about eating more to get the most ‘bang for their buck.’ Take a look at the oversize popcorn and soda choices at movie theaters that cost only a fraction more than the smaller options. Look at the ‘bargain’ supersized portions sold at fast food restaurants and the better value bigger packages in supermarkets and you’ll see it for yourself. No other country that I’ve been to has servings quite as larger as the ones offered here in America and it’s all part of a carefully thought out strategy to make you buy more and eat more. The constant influx of new products also plays a major role in getting people to eat more. New food products labeled as ‘organic’ or containing ‘organic ingredients’ have joined the roster of ‘low fat’, ‘all natural’, ‘fat free’, ‘no cholesterol’, ‘high fiber’, and vitamin enriched foods. None of these labels have any bearing on whether a food is inherently healthy or not, but it gives the public a feeling of comfort when they buy them. A sense of comfort that also encourages us to over consume foods that we shouldn’t be eating in the first place. If high fructose corn syrup is bad today, replacing it with ‘organic sugar’ in a product still makes it a junk food, but the illusion of it being healthier persuades consumers to eat it with a guilt free conscience. Feeling guilt free about what you eat won’t stop you from gaining weight by eating too many empty calories but it is good for business.


How To Protect Yourself From Marketing Messages To Eat More

Eating healthy isn't rocket science- you just have to avoid processed foods and don't overeat

Eating healthy isn’t rocket science but it does mean avoiding processed foods.

We gain nothing by saying that we are immune to the effects of food advertising as such ways of thinking only leads to a false sense of security. Most advertising operates far below our consciousness and it influences even the most health conscious of us all. Today there is little that isn’t manipulated to make you buy more and eat more; religion, your concerns about the environment, animal rights and your own health concerns are all used to influence your buying and eating decisions with products designed to align with your way of thinking. Whether we like it or not, research consistently shows that by increasing the intensity, repetition and visibility of food related advertising messages we buy more and eat more.[5] Our 24/7 hour connections to the Internet, television and social media makes it almost impossible to avoid ads and secluding yourself in the mountains isn’t a practical answer to not being influenced by them. However if you understand how the food industry works, you’ll be far less likely to fall for the ploys designed to make you eat more of the wrong foods.

Eating healthy isn’t confusing- it’s just not titillating or slick by any stretch of the imagination, and in a room with so many other voices shouting louder it isn’t often heard. The news and entertainment industry wouldn’t see much of an increase in their audience if every diet related segment said that you should avoid refined and processed foods, and only use fruits and vegetables as your snacks. Not only is it somewhat tedious, but it would alienates the very food companies whose refined products provide the lion share of advertising profits. It might not be a popular message backed by billions of dollars, but it is one that won’t ever change and one that you should heed if you are serious about being in shape.




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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to network TV, Kevin Richardson is the international fitness consultant for UNICEF, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Learn more about his award winning personal training services here!

1. Nestle M. Food Politics. How the food industry influences nutrition and health. University of California Press

2. Harris JM et al. The Food Marketing System. 2002 Agricultural Economics Report

3.Gallo AE. Food Advertising in the United States. America’s Eating Habits- Changes and Consequences- USDA

4.Ogden C, Carroll M. Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963-1965 Through 2007-2008. CDC

5. Enyinda CI, Ogbeuechi AO. An empirical analysis of retail pricing and multimedia effects on sales performance. J Food Products Marketing.
6. NCHS Data Brief.Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth:United States, 2011–2014

7. WHO Global Health Observatory Data (GHO) 2014

8. Garasky S, Mbwana K, Romualdo A, Tenaglio A, Roy M. Foods Typically Purchased by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households. USDA 2016