December 27, 2018 |
A number of countries are in the grip of an obesity epidemic. This is a particular problem in the US, where two thirds of the country are overweight or obese, and the UK, where over 50% are putting their health in danger with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Many lay blame at door of fast food joints and companies selling produce with large amounts of fat, sugar and salt at very low prices. Should governments impose extra taxes on unhealthy food to act as a deterrent, or is this veering too far towards a nanny state?
One of the main arguments the media put forward as to why so many people are obese is that many can’t afford to eat healthily as it’s more expensive. Case closed? No, leave that case open, because it’s not really true.
Healthy-eating is often marketed as a luxury on television and by bronzed, sculpted Instagram influencers. They put a focus on expensive organic produce, often hard-to-find imported vegetables, and dubious “superfoods” that cost way too much. However, the majority of evidence shows that you can get pretty much all of your nutrient and caloric needs from a diet that consists of rice and beans, with a couple of the main green vegetables thrown in. It’s not rocket science, but the thing is, it’s time-consuming, often pretty-uninspiring, and boring. Sugary and fatty foods at fast-food outlets are an addictive quick-fix, because they taste good, trigger dopamine receptors, and are delivered almost instantly with no preparation involved.
But even if healthy eating was more expensive, surely by raising the price of cheaper fast foods, you’re just making it harder all round for the poorest people to buy food. It doesn’t seem fair to just price the most vulnerable out the market by removing the choices they have.
It’s a difficult subject, because once you take away the fact that eating healthily isn’t really more expensive, on one hand you could argue that it’s ultimately people’s own choices that lead them to their poor health. But also, how fast-food food is marketed is obviously a huge-factor in driving people’s desire for it. Plus, there are all sorts of studies that show links with obesity and mental health issues, so there are multiple variables factored into the problem
I’d argue against putting a higher tax on sugary and fatty foods, as they are not unhealthy in moderation, and a tax unnecessarily penalises those who do enjoy some fast foods while still living healthy lifestyles. But I think governments should monitor and regulate how these foods are marketed. It seems obvious that certain limits should be in place for campaigns geared towards children. Indeed, the UK already bans cartoon characters from TV adverts from fast food outlets, and the amount of unhealthy food adverts that can be shown between children’s programming has been limited.
Governments should also put more of an emphasis on educating people about the dangers of obesity, and spend more on marketing campaigns to this effect. They also need to tackle some of the root causes such as depression and mental anxiety that lead people to unhealthy lifestyles. In countries with free healthcare such as the UK, obesity-related problems cost taxpayers huge amounts to treat, so in the long-term the extra money spent on healthy-eating campaigns and methods to solve mental problems should in theory have a net benefit in economic terms, if they spend the money effectively. None of these things are quick fixes though, and with governments eager to show they’ve made decent progress between elections, we may continue to see cracks being papered over while the central problem remains.
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