So the government is planning a ‘war against obesity’. This war will involve persuading people to lose weight presumably by health and dietary advice. To eat less, to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, cut down on highly processed manufactured food and get more exercise.
Of course, weight and obesity is a growing problem, not only in Britain, but in the world. And we know why. Our weight increases are largely due to the increased consumption of grains, added fats and added sugars, and the associated increase in carbohydrates. Canned fruit and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) account for much of this increase.
We know SSBs are associated with high calorific intake, not only because SSBs are highly calorific but those who consume them frequently have heightened sweet alertness so consume greater quantities of high calorific solid food. There are also replacement effects: those who drink SSBs are less likely to drink less water and milk and eat less fresh fruit. Those who consume the most SSBs have the highest risks of developing type 2 diabetes.
So we know the physical causes of obesity – increased consumption of sugars and transfats – but this does not explain why we eat more of these products that cause it. There are two answers. One is that food is cheaper, the other is that we prefer the unhealthy food.
Most of our unhealthy food is manufactured. Food manufacturers over the past seventy years have experimented to find out what appeals to our taste buds. And these are not merely personal preferences that people contingently develop, but ones that are part of our evolutionary heritage. We are programmed to like salt and to like sugar, since in the past these could be scarce, we ate what we could when we found it.
Sugar is highly addictive for mammals. Repeatedly eating excessive amounts of sugar induces naloxone, an opioid. Withdrawing the sugar cause the rats to display signs of opioid withdrawal: chattering teeth, paw tremors and head shakes. Naloxone decreases extracellular dopamine (DA), increases acetylcholine (ACh) with the DA/ACh imbalance causing withdrawal symptoms qualitatively similar to those induced by withdrawal from morphine or nicotine.
It is, therefore, not easy to switch from unhealthy diets to healthy ones. Simply telling us to eat fewer sugar-sweetened products and more fresh fruit and vegetables is not likely to have much of an effect.
Food is also cheaper. In relation to other goods, food has fallen in price over the past forty years by around 15%. Of course, this encourages us to eat more, and undoubtedly average portion size has grown over time. How much we expect to be served on our plates both at home and in cafes or restaurants has increased. However, the fall in the price of food is not equal across all foodstuffs. The price of most of our healthy food has increased over time – fresh fruits and vegetables have gone up in price by about 118%, fish by 77%, dairy products by 56%. At the same time, there are far more food energy-dense fast food products containing high levels of sugars and fats than in the past, and these are much cheaper than healthy alternatives. In other words, price falls in food are almost entirely contained in manufactured foods associated with weight gain and obesity.
The government is also planning a more long-term wartime strategy. Let us hope that it recognizes that the root causes of the obesity crisis do not lie in irresponsible choices by citizens, but in the failure of governments to recognize that they have allowed food manufacturers to fatten us all up.
We should not blame the food manufacturers themselves. They operate in a competitive market – if their food products do not appeal to us as much as their rivals then they will lose out. So they create SSBs, they add salt for taste and transfats to enable their products to have longer shelf lives.
The effects of these additives were not fully realised when they were first introduced but they are now and have been for a generation. We cannot expect individual food manufacturers to be persuaded to change the way they operate precisely because of the fact that they are in competition. The only answer is to regulate. Firms will play by the rules and it is the government who set the rules.
Countries around the world are beginning to respond – trans fats are now banned in several countries – but not the UK. All the UK has done is to urge food manufacturers not to use them, but it is not clear whether they have been reduced to any great extent in our food.
Another government policy is taxing bad additives. The UK introduced a sugar tax but we need evidence on how well it works. We should also consider tighter regulations over how sweet manufactured foods can be. Many sugar-free drinks for example, have sweeteners that make the drink very sweet, and we still do not know their long-term health effects.
Johnson is planning a war against obesity but if all he does is to provide more advice and propaganda admonishing people to eat less, eat more healthily and exercise more, then he will fail. Oh sure, a few of us will heed the urging, but overall as a society we will just get fatter and fatter.
The cause of the obesity crisis is lack of government action on the root causes. Government needs to govern by creating the incentives through regulation for firms and their citizens to eat healthier food. It needs to take responsibility for the crisis its inaction has caused, rather than, as usual, punting the problem back to individuals.
Keith Dowding is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Political Philosophy at the Australian National University. He is the author of It’s the Government, Stupid: How Governments’ Blame Citizens for Their Own Policies.
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