Shooting ourselves in the foot: How the way we talk about food issues puts public health advocates at a disadvantage

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So many debates about food get fanned in front of the public as being an issue of "government regulation" vs. "personal choice." It happened a few months ago in a debate called "Is obesity the government's business?" It happened just days ago in a Colorado Health Symposium called "Food Fight!" And it has happened countless times in between.

Both sides make predictable arguments. Those against regulation say it's really consumers who drive corporate decisions and, therefore, need to be more responsible; and those for regulation explain why that's nonsense. People's willpower, as Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, will tell you, has not declined in the past few decades. Human nature hasn't changed; but our surroundings -- increasingly saturated with cheap, unhealthy foods -- have.

Sometimes people's minds are changed after these dialogues. Sometimes they aren't. And yet, regardless of which side wins a particular debate or how powerful any individual argument (like Wootan's) is, public health advocates are left at a disadvantage. That's because each time advocates engage in these debates, they risk inadvertently reinforcing their opposition's arguments.

This happens for two reasons:

First, the starting point for these debates -- the notion that people must decide between retaining or giving up personal choice -- is a false one. Regulation and choice are not mutually exclusive. Choice happens with or without regulation. When it comes to creating policies that improve public health, such policies don't threaten choice; they simply influence the context for it.

The question, then, becomes: What do we want that context to look like? Do we want our surroundings to work against us -- to be laden with salty, sugary, fatty foods that make it harder for us and our loved ones to be healthy? Or do we want our surroundings to work in our favor? And who do we want to be in charge of that context? The government, which has a duty to protect the safety, health and well-being of its people? Or major corporations, whose fiduciary responsibilities to increase profits dictate that they promote products that harm health instead of those that protect it?

Second, food issues are often framed in ways that, intentionally or not, pit the government against individuals and leave out the real culprit: industry. This happens any time we hear the common phrase, "government regulation." The term is a misnomer (after all, it's food industry regulation that's at issue here), and using it distracts people from thinking about the very thing that's in need of scrutiny. Priming people with this language cues up their existing ideas about government, which are often highly polarizing and can be negative even among those who agree that food industry practices are harmful to health and need to be reigned in.

Language matters. The people who control the terms of a debate often control the outcome of that debate. They influence not only how people view an issue but also how they act on it. With regard to food, that debate plays out in universities and newsrooms and even living rooms every day. And food and beverage companies are doing their best to dominate the conversation. They use the red herring of "choice" to scare people into siding against their own best interests.

So when public health advocates find themselves responding to questions about regulation or choice, they should reject the frames they're handed and create new ones instead. They can reframe the debate to expose the food industry's role in making people sick and point to solutions for compelling it clean up its act.

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