Obesity is a growing problem, but people are taking responsibility for themselves rather than blaming the industry, says Siân Harrington

Chocolate, biscuits and crisps are not to blame for increasing levels of obesity, research obtained by The Grocer reveals.
In fact, obese people are continuing to cut down on impulse snacks and are instead increasing consumption of low-calorie food and drink, according to the Libra Report, compiled by global market information company TNS and Cadbury Schweppes. They are also eating more substantial savoury snacks - energy-dense foods such as burgers and pizza between main meals and on more occasions.
The report, which supports research carried out last year by TNS (The Grocer, June 26, 2004), reveals that fizzy drinks, chocolate, sweets and cakes are actively avoided or restricted by between a quarter and a third of people and are generally perceived as a treat.
“Obese people are eating energy-dense savoury foods as they need to feel full and satisfied,” confirms Jonathan Webster, head of consumer planning and research at Cadbury Trebor Bassett. “Meanwhile, ideal weight people are eating lighter options more regularly.”
TNS surveyed nearly 1,000 members of its Consumer and Family Food panel who provided height and weight to calculate Body Mass Index (used to measure obesity). It then compared the consumption patterns of the obese, overweight, ideal weight and underweight using barcode scanning of products in the home.
Worryingly, despite a year in which diet and health has rarely been out of the spotlight, the true consumption habits of those deemed overweight or obese have barely altered compared to three years ago when TNS began its obesity-tracking programme.
Awareness of obesity and weight problems increased to 40% from 34% last year and was the number one health issue spontaneously mentioned among those questioned. They named diet-related reasons as the main cause, but when it came to spontaneous mentions, the same amount (91%) cited diet and exercise. “Awareness is growing but, despite everything government and industry have done, obesity is still growing,” says Webster. “The vast majority recognise the solution is a balance between how they eat and calories burned. They understand but cannot put it into context and practice.”
Individuals see themselves as responsible, with family and parents in second place. Only 5% think manufacturers should take the initiative in tackling obesity and there is widespread scepticism about the effectiveness of third-party initiatives. A reduction in ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat was mentioned most when it came to the role the industry could play, with some believing better labelling could help.
“There is no perception that people are victims. They know their actions are not good for their health but don’t want people interfering in their lives,” says Webster. “Food manufacturers are not being blamed in the way cigarette manufacturers are blamed.”
Depressingly, when it comes to exercise, awareness of government guidelines is lower than last year. Ideal weight and obese people have similar levels but only 38% of aware obese consumers adhere to the guidelines compared with 55% of those of ideal weight.
The study highlights the difficulty in motivating behaviour change - echoing IGD research revealed at The Grocer’s Health White Paper seminar. IGD chief Joanne Denney-Finch said: “There’s a huge motivational problem and it will take real ingenuity to break through this barrier.”
But the food industry should not absolve itself of all responsibility. It should continue to provide clearer labelling, encourage an active lifestyle and take a responsible approach to marketing.

The Libra Report
>>common foods eaten or avoided by respondents (%)
Actively avoidEatEat onlyEat too
or restrictevery dayas treatsmuch of
Fizzy drinks3416711
Ice cream194353
Vegetables 1 79 1 3
Fruit 1 63 1 2
Source: TNS and cadbury schweppes