With two-thirds of American adults and one-third of our children either overweight or obese, it is clear that the regulations, strategies, and tactics deployed to reverse this albatross have been ineffective. What has dumbfounded me is that we rarely ask the following question: why has nothing worked?

So far, too much emphasis has been given to “being right” rather than fixing the problem. A “my way or the highway” mentality prevails. Many blame the food marketers for pushing junk foods. Others hold consumers responsible for not eating well or exercising. While each of these arguments has merit, neither camp has served up any lasting solutions.

We have spent countless years defending status quo positions or demonizing others for perpetuating obesity, but have overlooked the most basic aspect of the combatants—that is, their wiring. By this, I mean that we have not considered the core personality type of each entity that is a player in this ongoing obesity drama.

Why would this matter? Because each party involved in shaping America’s obesity problem views the situation through a different lens. This is why the one-size-fits-all approaches that have been prevalent fall flat. Once we finally unlock the psyches of grocers, restaurateurs, packaged goods marketers, health advocates and activists, nutritionists, and consumers, we become privy to their motivations and limitations. When we understand what makes each party tick, we gain the knowledge to effect real, constructive change.

A simple way of describing each actor’s behavior is by drawing a parallel to the elements: each player is either a solid, a liquid, or a gas.

Solids care about defending the status quo. They’re traditional, risk averse, dislike change, and take either/or positions. More often than not, they focus on short-term needs. However, when they do make up their minds, they are capable of sticking with the game plan and carrying through to the end.

Conversely, gases bring creativity and a forward-looking perspective to the dialogue. They openly embrace change. In fact, the process of change is often the goal. Gases typically chide solids for not seeing the future and are accused by their solid brethren of being impractical and ivory-towerish.

Liquids serve as the bridge between solids and gases in that they are more likely to see the big picture and think strategically. They bring more of a win-win mentality to situations and can serve as a conduit to lasting solutions.

In the ensuing weeks, I will dissect the personality of each of the key players in the obesity debate one at a time. You will be able to gain a better understanding of how food executives think; what grocers don’t want you to know; why restaurant chains promote combo meals and supersized beverages; why health advocates and activists push draconian solutions like soda taxes and ingredient bans; and why, with the exception of the most disciplined among us, consumers are doomed to fail with dieting and exercise.

More poignantly, you will see how barriers to progress have evolved when staunch solids like grocers and restaurant chains interact with the combustible food activist gases. I will also draw parallels to the behavior of political parties—care to guess which party is solid? Which one is more like gas? More importantly, at the end of this series of articles, you will understand how we got here and what viable solutions to the obesity epidemic can emerge that work for all invested parties.

Next time I will focus on the restaurant chains and provide a glimpse into who they are, how they think, and the real reasons behind larger portions.

Stay tuned.

I have just returned from participating in a landmark event. Kudos to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Food Trust for convening a first-of-its-kind symposium at the University of Pennsylvania to explore ways that grocers can help stem America’s obesity epidemic. Titled “Harnessing the Power of Supermarkets to Help Prevent Childhood Obesity,” the gathering brought together experts approaching the issue from all sides, including food marketing and grocery executives, obesity researchers, policy analysts, and representatives from non-profit organizations.

The real question is: why hasn’t anyone done this before?

The silence emanating from the grocery segment has been deafening. Yes, a handful of supermarkets have implemented nutritional labeling on packaged foods, such as the Guiding Stars program pioneered by Hannaford Brothers, but most of the attention has been focused on how to cajole food manufacturers into lowering the calories, fat, sugars, and sodium in their lineups. Despite being on the front lines with consumers, the grocery channel has been missing-in-action and overlooked as a potentially effective vehicle to fight obesity.

The fact is that most purchase decisions are made while in the act of shopping. A recent Booz & Company study [PDF] highlights that 59 percent of shoppers select the brands they buy when in the store. An overwhelming majority (77 percent) enter stores without detailed shopping lists. And when shoppers have lists, almost one third of them deviate significantly from them.

With so much indecision about what to buy, supermarkets are in a prime position to influence consumers to purchase healthier combinations of foods.

It’s time for grocer’s shelves and displays to trumpet brands that offer less calories and a better balance of nutrition. This does not mean that we shouldn’t enjoy our favorite indulgences. It’s just that we need to be reminded of healthier foodstuffs when we are in decision mode. As any Marketing 101 course teaches, it’s all about awareness.

Marketers and merchandisers know that the more visible an item is, the more it will sell. Studies have confirmed that sales for items on display often increase by a factor of four-fold or more. And as noted in my chapter from Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat titled What Grocers Don’t Want You to Know, “eye level means buy level.”

While we know visibility is critical, too often stores do not display enough better-for-you foods. My own store surveys have illustrated that over 60 percent of stand-alone displays carry items that nutritionists would decry as unhealthy.

We find ourselves at that watershed moment when it is time to rethink the supermarket. How can we turn grocers’ considerable merchandising skills to help slim us down? With supermarkets’ arrays of sampling programs, displays, interactive shopping carts, and shelf signage, can we not more easily capture shoppers’ attention to purchase healthier foods?

Ultimately, the real question to engage supermarkets is: can they make more money pushing better-for-you foods? Right now those answers are undetermined. It will take a few adventurous supermarket chains to serve as “pilots” to assess what can work. I will have more to say on this in a future article.

Please share your ideas on how you think supermarkets can help make a difference in the fight against obesity.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee just issued its findings and recommendations to encourage healthier eating. Containing no surprises, the Committee’s suggestions included four major steps required to help Americans adopt better nutrition and physical activity behaviors, namely:

• Reducing calorie intakes and increasing physical activity
• Shifting to a more plant-based diet
• Reducing the consumption of added sugars, solid fats, sodium, and refined grains, and
• Meeting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

First published in “pre-obesity” 1980, these reports are issued every five years to provide direction about how dietary intake can reduce risk for major chronic diseases. Since that time, obesity, a diet-related condition, has climbed to become our country’s number-one health issue. Rates in this country have skyrocketed to the point where two-thirds of all American adults are now either overweight or obese. Hardly a successful track record.

We must face the music. It’s time to drop the Guidelines.

Why have the Guidelines failed? I can think of several reasons:

Prescriptions are difficult to follow. Consumers don’t eat carbohydrates, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup. They eat FOOD. Driving attention to what’s in food rather than the end product is an abstraction. Most people do not relate. We would be better informed if communications were presented in a “real world” fashion. Let us know the dietary impact of French fries, hamburgers, and soft drinks, not just what’s in them. It’s like listing all the parts inside your car without describing the driving experience, ambiance, and color.

They’re in a different language. Our country’s conversion to the metric system was attempted back in the 1970s. Americans never adapted, and the experiment was abandoned. The food bureaucracy didn’t get the memo. The amounts of ingredients in foods are still given in grams. With many in our country challenged by math, it is too much to expect the public to know what a gram represents. (For posterity, there are 454 grams per pound. RIP.)

The Guidelines take a one-size-fits-all approach. The Guidelines assume that all of us learn the same way and that once we obtain nutritional knowledge we will change our eating behaviors accordingly. “If they hear it, they will come.” Works fine for the Food Illuminati, but don’t hold your breath for the rest of us. Most analyses suggest that from two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans either struggle to walk their nutritional talk or simply don’t care. Debating the chemistry of trans fats or the pedigree of their cheeseburger offers no interest.

They offer a micro approach to a macro problem. Addressing obesity and securing our long-term health requires a Big Picture purview. While the Guidelines drill down on the nutritional details, Rome burns. It is no longer of import to learn all the nutritional facts; it’s imperative that workable solutions be offered.

As I have shared here on the Atlantic Food Channel, the best approach to making Americans healthier and ameliorating obesity is to prioritize and keep it simple. Instead of memorizing a laundry list of rogue ingredients, go after the biggest factor affecting America’s health: calories.

It sure beats learning the metric system.