40.2 Food choice and consumer behaviour Achieving sustainability by preventing childhood obesity

Lucia Reisch , Intercultural Communication and Management, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Wencke Gwozdz , Intercultural Communication and Management, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Its worldwide soaring rates and its serious social and economic consequences shoved the obesity epidemic into the centre of many countries’ attention. Increasingly, curtailing and preventing obesity already at child age has been recognized as a goal of a sustainable society. Lately, many countries such as Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland as well as the EU have integrated levels of obesity in their respective sustainability strategies. To date, most European countries and also countries worldwide, e.g., US, Canada, and Australia  have implemented national action plans to fight the rise of obesity (WHO 2008).Since, the probability is high for obese children to become obese adults, it is high time to think about effective strategies.

According to the 1998 Human Development Report (UNDP 1998), consumption that enhances human development must be shared, strengthening, socially responsible, and sustainable. The ongoing obesity pandemic meets none of these criteria. Rather, it seriously affects the social, cultural, and economic sustainability of societies (Reisch 2003).

Social sustainability is jeopardized as far as social cohesion, equity, and fairness erode due to the consequences of obesity. In general, overweight and obese individuals are associated with debilitating health, reduced mobility, poorer employments, premature mortality and higher living expenses and thus, an overall poorer quality of life (Government Office for Science 2007).

Obesity affects cultural sustainability in particular when it comes to food cultures. With the rise of the McDonaldization of consumption, fast food and ready meals have started to dominate food cultures worldwide. These have been found to be related to obesity (Robinson et al. 2005). An ecologically unsustainable food supply is coming along with satisfying these food cultures’ demands (WHO 2008).

Concerning economic sustainability, obesity’s consequences for health care systems and labour markets are insurmountable. National health systems – chronically underfunded anyway – suffer from obesity’s many co-morbidities. Moreover, labour market statistics show that obese people have a lower employment rate due to health consequences or other reasons such as workplace discrimination (McCormick and Stone 2007).

Basically, each individual is free to choose her preferred lifestyle, food intake, and level of physical activity - however detrimental these might be.  Yet, unsustainable lifestyles become an issue for politics when the external effects of private consumption are reflected in social costs and/or when the life chances of future generations are at stake. Health and consumer policy have together started to employ the whole arsenal of instruments (information, education, incentives, regulation, creation of supportive environments) to go about this problem. Still, there is no downward trend identifiable, yet. What has become clear is that to prevent obesity needs the concerted action of all actors including food industry, retailers, the media, and marketers. The purpose of this paper is to outline and evaluate the options of different market and governmental actors to curb childhood obesity.

The European Commission notes that parents having the main responsibility for their children should be able to make informed choices and transfer their knowledge to their offspring (2007). Consumer’s information, education, empowerment and engagement are relevant tools in order to pursue three main strategic goals: raise awareness of the risks of obesity, reduce energy intake, and increase energy output; yet, they might not be far-reaching enough. Sometimes, it might be worth to actively steer consumption subtly – “to nudge” (Thaler and Sunstein 2008) - into healthier choices by shaping the consumption context, i.e., access and defaults settings.

Food industries’ and retailers’ voluntary contribution could comprise a shifting focus from short-term goals to an investment in long-term programs (Layton and Grossbart 2006). There is a large potential for improving and standardizing the existing food labelling systems in order to reduce consumers’ confusion). Easing the decision process of consumers, there is a need for easy and low cost access to sustainable healthy food such as vegetables and fruits by improving the availability. Moreover, recipes could be reformulated by modifying levels of fat, sugar or salt. Another approach would be to decrease package and portion sizes (European Commission 2008).

Marketers and advertisers should be aware of the effects advertisements have on children’s food preferences. There are attempts to force the industry to act accordingly by regulations, but evidence of success is weak (Lang and Rayner 2007). Thus, policy-makers seek to establish best practices to curb especially unhealthy food advertisements targeted at children. Some initiatives already exist in Europe and the US, acting as promising starting points.

To conclude, (childhood) obesity is an important issue with regard to sustainability and there are several opportunities to overcome this epidemic. Following behavioural economics and the psychology of consumer behaviour: “Making the healthy choice the simple choice” is an important driver to promote healthy nutrition, especially when it comes to children.


European Commission (2008), "EU platform on diet, physical activity and health - 2008 annual report," Brussels: DG Sanco.

Government Office for Science, UK (2007), "Foresight tackling obesities: Future choices – Modelling future trends in obesity & their impact on health," Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Lang, T. and G. Rayner (2007), "Overcoming policy cacophony on obesity: An ecological public health framework for policymakers," Obesity Reviews, 8, 165-81.

Layton, R. A. and S. Grossbart (2006), "Macromarketing: past, present, and possible future," Journal of Macromarketing, 26 (2), 193-213.

McCormick, B. and I.  Stone (2007), "Economic costs of obesity and the case for government intervention," Obesity Reviews, 8 (s1), 161-64.

Reisch, L. (2003), “Consumption,” In: E. A. Page & J. Proops (Eds.), “Environmental thought,” Edward Elgar Series Current Issues in Ecological Economics, pp. 217-242. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar

Robinson, M. G., P. N. Bloom, and N. H. Lurie (2005), "Combating obesity in the courts: Will lawsuits against McDonald's work?," Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 24 (2), 299-306.

Thaler, R. H. & C. R. Sunstein (2008), “Nudge – Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness,” New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) (1998), “Human Development Report 1998,” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

WHO (2008), "European action plan for food and nutrition policy 2007-2012," Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe.