Former president George W. Bush once famously (or infamously, depending on your political views) said: “I don’t do nuance.” Well, as it often turns out, many of us don’t do nuance, at least not enough of it.
A good example is the internal dispute within the health department of New York City over a recently launched media campaign against obesity. As the New York Times reported (10/29/2010), the department’s intention was to send “a strong message that would motivate people to change their behavior.”
Part of this effort is a video posted on YouTube, titled “Pouring on the Pounds,” which has been described by its creators as intentionally “viral.” A young man is shown drinking what is supposedly liquid fat coming out of a soda can, followed by the message that excessive soda consumption may add 10 pounds or more to one’s body weight within a year. The “major gross-out factor” – as the responsible advertising agency called it – was employed to get the point across once and for all: Stop drinking too many sodas or you get fat. No nuance here.
New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, who reportedly favored a strong statement over several watered-down versions, of course, has a point. People have easier access to information about issues of nutrition and health than ever before, and yet they seem more confused by the multiple and often contradictory advice they are getting. Perhaps an “in-your-face” approach would be more effective.
A few years ago, I attended the TIME/ABC News Summit on Obesity in Williamsburg, VA, where the best and the brightest in the field gathered to share their insights. On the final day, a selected panel of experts was invited to come up with a unified message that could help overcome our national nutritional malaise. It was sad to see how little agreement existed even among professionals over a seemingly simple matter, namely what we should eat and what we should avoid.
When asked what the leading causes for weight gain are, the only statement everyone could consent to was: “It depends.” And I think that’s the right answer. But before you throw up your hands and stop reading, let me explain.
Among my many clients, I enjoy most working with children and teenagers who struggle with eating disorders and weight problems. I particularly remember a young lady who had been unsuccessful in trying to control her weight for some time. After a few sessions of counseling, we began playing a game. We called it “calorie banking.” In short, I asked her to look at her calorie intake like money expenditures. We set up an initial account in which she deposited 14 dollars in single pennies (one penny for each calorie of her daily allowance). Every time she had a meal, she would have to withdraw a certain amount from her account. Every time she skipped a snack or a treat in favor of keeping to regular meals dominated by fresh vegetables and fruits, she could re-deposit some of the money. She became quite good at this and the desired results were remarkable. She lost the extra weight and the rest is history.
The reason why I’m telling this little anecdote is because it shows how a complex problem can better be solved when it’s broken down in smaller parts. We all know that there are no easy answers to the obesity epidemic. We know that there are no one-fits-all solutions. We know that we will never reach everyone with a single message. But we all understand that we have to balance our checkbooks eventually.
So if you like to eat and have a tendency to overindulge once in a while, make sure you go to the gym more often or go running in the park until you burned off the extra calories. If certain foods make you gain weight more easily, try some healthier alternatives. If you enjoy sodas too much, stick with the diet versions and alternate more often with water. If you travel or eat out a lot, make sure you understand the pitfalls of restaurant foods and ask for omissions of heavy ingredients, cooking techniques and other modifications.
I’m all for clarity when it comes to communicating important messages. But the people who are supposed to receive these messages must feel empowered and motivated to take measures in their own hands. If they can’t do that… well, they will not do nuance either.