The “causes” of obesity will likely continue to be a topic of research and debate ad infinitude. We are, obviously, in support of any and all research but do acknowledge that the diversity of risk factors for obesity may cause some to throw up their hands in frustration and say…
It’s hopeless, everything is linked to obesity!
They would be right in that many aspects of our current physical environment, social structure, and economic and policy environment create barriers that make achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight challenging. Still, we don’t agree that it’s hopeless and do feel that this is a very important area of research; especially when used to inform effective practices and policies. Following that train of thought, we found a recent article by Sturm and An (1) that looks at obesity from the stand point of the economic environment. Their key point was that access to cheap and effortless food has been increasing over time for Americans.
Unfortunately, when we look at the health implications we may be paying a very steep price for these cheap eats.
Economics of Healthy Eating
People often cite cost as a barrier to eating healthy and certainly there is a link between lower socio-economic status and increased obesity. If we look at the trends since the 1980s however, obesity rates are increasing across all levels of education or income, suggesting that these factors cannot entirely account for the increased obesity rates (1) and that everyone stands to gain from positive changes.
We don’t deny that eating boutique, organic, gluten-free etc. foods can be expensive; BUT it has also been argued that it is possible to eat a healthy diet without breaking the bank (2). Despite the case for inexpensive, healthy foods, people are choosing to gulp and gobble down the unhealthy grub AND the fact that it is so cheap makes it all that much easier. Not too mention these foods are marketed to the hilt, making them hard to ignore.
Economics of Obesity
Sturm et al. (1) wanted to get a sense of which factors have the strongest link to obesity with the justification that this could help direct our energy when it comes to anti-obesity policies and interventions. They acknowledge that snacking, sedentary behaviours, screen time, urban planning, fast food and portion sizes have been associated with obesity and this list is certainly not exhaustive.
They claim that the strongest link to obesity was found with the widespread availability of inexpensive food. Americans are now spending a smaller portion of their disposable income on food than at any point in history and in any country. We’re also getting more calories for our dollar to boot. The authors calculated that currently Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food as compared to 25% in the 1930s and 20% in the 1950s (1). They also note that the per capita food availability and easy of access have increased (1).
Sturm et al. (1) cite data that our rising obesity rates have occurred despite increases in leisure time, increased fruit and vegetable availability (different than actual consumption), and increased exercise.
Far be it from us to argue with their data but we do want to point out that increasing physical activity and improving diet quality have benefits beyond simply achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight AND are still worthy goals. Increasing or not, most of us are a long way off optimal physical activity levels and adequate intakes of vegetables and fruits.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the authors do not attribute the obesity epidemic solely to lower costs of food and interventions to curb the obesity epidemic should continue to be multifaceted.
No Baloney’s Advice? We found this data very interesting but do not feel that the solution would be to increase the cost of food! Strategies such as taxation are controversial, see our previous post Taxing Unhealthy Foods – ‘Big Brothering’ but is it Effective’. We agree with the authors in that the best tactic is to focus on reduced consumption, especially when it comes to the sugary, salty snacks. Just because your wallet can afford to eat a meal containing 1000 calories and your daily intake of sugar and salt does not mean that your body can!