I was a Speaker at the 2012 Colorado Health Symposium on July 25-27, 2012 during the interactive debate titled “Food Fight: Who Gets to Decide What Our Children Eat?”

Is healthy eating a function of personal choice that should not be subjected to government regulation? Experts on opposite sides spared over this question as you can see in the above video link.

The main topic of the health symposium this year was “Health Equity: Bridging the Divides”

Keystone Resort and Conference Center“Everyone suffers when people can’t access basic health needs. In recent years, economic uncertainties have imposed financial burdens on our health systems and services as more people join the ranks of the poor and the unemployed. But it’s not just those who live in abject poverty that don’t have affordable health insurance, quality medical care, or opportunities to make different choices for themselves and their families. Poor population health further undermines our country’s fiscal health and ultimately impacts us all.

The theme for the 2012 Colorado Health Symposium, “Health Equity: Bridging the Divides,” sets the tone for a more equitable future. The three-day conference challenges presenters and participants to define opportunities for greater affordability, access and choice, resulting in enhanced productivity, reduced health costs and ultimately improved lives.

With an emphasis on innovation and real-world solutions, the Colorado Health Symposium features fresh perspectives and new ideas from national thought leaders in health and health care. Set in beautiful Keystone, Colo., this annual event is regarded as one of the most widely discussed health policy conferences in the country.”

If you are interested in viewing other videos from the Symposium or reading about the various presentations please go to the online Symposium University.

    The Combo Meal Mindset

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    Originally written in The Atlantic Online on August 5, 2010

    This is the second in a series covering the psyches of the key players involved in the obesity debate. My purpose is to highlight the strengths and blind spots of each participant so that we can better understand how the obesity epidemic got here, what can be done, and who can (really) fix it. First up are the restaurant chains.

    The impact of restaurants on our economy is enormous. There are almost 1 million restaurants (945,000) in the United States, and the industry employs 12.7 million workers. Americans spend $580 billion a year at restaurants, which represents almost half (49 percent) of our total food expenditures. That’s more than the entire gross domestic product of Switzerland, Poland, or Sweden.

    The restaurant industry operates in a distinctive fashion and its personality can best be described—to use the chemistry analogy I introduced last time—as “solid.” Recall that solids prefer the status quo and dislike anything that disrupts how they conduct business. Their focus is more short-term, but they are exceptionally good with following through and getting things done. They are traditionalists who frequently take either/or positions and are politically conservative.

    As “operators,” restaurants must pay attention to a litany of detailed tasks, otherwise their business will suffer. Their job is to make sure that everything works smoothly—that everyone’s fed the right product at the right time; the lights are on; and the bathrooms are clean. Day in and day out. Since their gross profits are less lofty than packaged goods and soft drink marketers, restaurant chains face particularly big challenges just trying to manage their businesses. An inordinate amount of attention must be given to efficient scheduling, shipping and utility costs, reducing high rates of employee turnover, food safety and cleanliness, and customer service.

    Attention to these matters is absolutely essential for success. The flip side of this coin is that restaurants can be somewhat myopic. This is why many restaurant chains have been in denial too long about their role in contributing to their customers’ expanding girth.

    This restaurant mindset is why we end up with menu offerings such as combo meals and supersized beverages. Combo meals were born out of operational necessity. Restaurants observed that customers were having difficulty quickly deciding what they wanted to order off a menu board. This resulted in long waiting lines and the loss of patrons unwilling to wait. Enter the combo meal, which made it easier to pick predetermined items for a set price. Not only did lines move more rapidly, but restaurants were able to sell an extra item like French fries for a nominal increase in price with each order, thus improving revenues and profits.

    From a business standpoint, this is easy to understand. But it has turned out to be a different story for America’s waistlines, as extra calories were being unloaded onto fast food trays. A University of Wisconsin study showed that the small price increase of 15 percent for a combo meal delivered an extra 73 percent more calories.

    A similar dynamic occurs with supersizing drinks. An iced tea or soft drink basically costs a penny an ounce (plus about three cents for the lid, cup, and straw). The economics become plain when one realizes that a 64-ounce Double Big Gulp can be priced to yield more profit than a smaller 24-ounce serving.

    The industry’s true “solid” character manifested itself recently with the brouhaha over whether to post calories on menu boards. Initially, the industry resisted the changes proposed for New York City, citing concerns over costs and hassles tied to changing menus and the inability to handle all the different menu items, which would each register a different caloric content. Instead, industry spokespeople touted that restaurants offered plenty of healthier options and consumers should take responsibility for their eating decisions. Emphasis should be placed on educating Americans on a healthy diet and exercise.

    While seemingly sensible, this point of view is short-sighted in that it bypassed the opportunity to embrace the change and signal restaurants’ commitment to being part of the solution by helping customers select lower calorie options. In the end, the industry supported the measure, now part of health care legislation—but only after recognizing that if it resisted it would have faced a costly and disruptive patchwork of municipal and state requirements instead of a single national standard.

    So what does all this mean?

    Despite its size, the restaurant industry cannot be expected to lead the charge to slim down America. It’s simply not in restaurants’ wiring. The “operator” personality simply cannot deal with a big picture issue such as obesity. Only with impetus from the top—CEOS and industry leaders taking a stand and lowering the number of calories they sell—can there be change.

    Next time I will introduce you to the grocers, those master merchandisers. Will they be the ones to lead us out of the obesity mess?

    Recorded Live on July 6, 2012

    CNBC Video “Mayor’s Soda Ban: Corporate Backlash?”

    New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be trying to ban the big gulp, but fast food companies may have the upper hand, with RJ Hottovy, Morningstar Analyst, and Hank Cardello, Hudson Institute.

    Originally written on May 1, 2010

    The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity just unveiled its plan to solve childhood obesity.  The report’s recommendations ranged from encouraging schools to work with local growers to providing economic incentives for fruits, vegetables and grains to displaying calorie counts on restaurant menus.

    The report leans heavily on parents, health care providers, the medical community and government agencies to drive solutions. The reality is that these constituencies have failed for over two decades to effect a lasting resolution to America’s overweight and obesity crisis.

    Rather than highlighting seventy-odd recommendations on what should be done, we would be better served if focus were placed on the two most critical issues: (1) lowering the number of calories that our children eat, and (2) educating them how to eat well. And that means engaging the food marketers and suppliers.

    Why calories? Because calories available for individual consumption have increased by 30% since 1970. Efforts to ban or limit high fructose corn syrup, sodium and saturated fats only diffuse focus on the real issue. Lower calories and, surprise, fats and sweeteners also go down.

    A good place to start is in our school systems. Schools offer a “controlled” environment unlike home or play situations. School districts can immediately demand that their foodservice and vending machine suppliers lower the average number of calories they sell per student by 20%. This can be achieved by reconfiguring entrée meals or providing lower calorie snacks in vending machines. And profit margins would not be hampered.

    Second, instead of limiting or banning advertising to children, we should leverage the $1.6 billion spent on child food ads to educate them by incorporating a portion control and/or nutritional and/or exercise message. All ads directed to children must contain these messages and they would be limited to products that meet certain science-based nutrition standards. This $1.6 billion in advertising dwarfs available government funds for education and would make a serious dent in communicating important nutritional messages to children.

    It’s time to look beyond recycled solutions and capitalize on the food marketer’s ability to effect positive change.