When Bacon Turns Into Cigarettes: How Health Plans Can Build On Health Science

By: Anne Elmlinger


Last year’s World Health Organization report on the health dangers of eating processed meats raised a critically important issue for consumers. Specifically, the WHO officially classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. This means there is strong scientific evidence linking these foods to cancer.  However, there is no definitive explanation yet for why the link exists; whether it is due to nitrates/nitrites, heme iron, high temperature cooking, or something else.

Many of the media reports created sensational headlines on this story that led people to discount the true message.  The dangers of smoking and eating bacon are the same?  That seems preposterous!  Social media was bombarded with claims that people will now be forced to eat their bacon 20 feet outside their office building.  Sure, it’s funny.  But it also seems like a defensive reaction to discount the science in order to serve a craving for a favorite food.

The media flurry on this story has died down now, as it always does.  Now it is up to the health care profession to help communicate what this really means to each of us who consumes processed meats.

Next Steps

Two important questions are:  How will individuals process this news over time, i.e., will there be long-lasting effects?   How will other parts of the health care industry use this information?

From our consumer research about healthy habits and nutrition, we have heard about the events that trigger behavioral change: 

  • When a loved one faces a serious health issue, it can lead you to take a hard look at ways to minimize your own risk.  
  • If your doctor makes it personal and says that YOU are at risk and explains why and what you can do about it, that can be the spark.
  • Sometimes exercise experts are persuasive about the need to have a healthy diet so they recommend both fitness and nutrition regimens.
  • The media can also reach some people – documentaries such as Fed Up and Food Inc. and TV chefs, such as Jamie Oliver, have been influential for some.
  • Large employers may offer healthy meals on-site that expose their employees to new dietary options.
  • Some employers and local governments have organized challenges for large groups to eat healthier diets and get more exercise.

We hear how doctors, fitness experts, the media, employers, and even government are influencing people.  However, we don’t usually hear that health insurance plans have made an impact on consumers’ lifestyles.  Maybe their impact is always going to be indirect and unheralded.  Clearly their most natural role is to be the funding stream for getting solid medical advice about nutrition.  But given what is at stake for them to have healthy customers, it makes sense to consider breaking from the traditional role as funders.  Here’s our list of some ways that health plans can help their customers improve their diet:

  • Reimburse physicians for the time they spend providing nutritional guidance
  • Include dietitians and nutrition experts in the network to increase accessibility
  • Cover dietitian visits for those at risk
  • Sponsor online communities for consumers interested in nutrition
  • Partner with local grocery stores/community farmers to promote healthy food options
  • Work with community organizations to provide new food options in urban “food deserts”
  • Create games or quizzes to learn about nutrition using social media
  • Sponsor contests in schools to encourage and recognize young people who develop good ideas for promoting healthy eating

By finding new ways to reach their customers, health plans have a better chance of success.  There’s not just one source or one message that works.  In the words of one consumer: “I don’t think there is one source that you can trust – nutritional recommendations seem to come and go and change over the years. I think it all comes down to what feels right and works for you.”

Careers Greenwald & Associates