The war on obesity - in Brazil

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Big_mac_copy_2Brazilians have earned a reputation around the world for their beauty, boosted by fashion icons like Gisele Bündchen. But a recent article from the Science and Development Network sounded an alarm about the state of things in Brazil. Jonathan Wells, a reader in childhood nutrition at the UCL Institute of Child Health in London, commented on the alarming growth of obesity in Bündchen's homeland:

In Brazil, between 1973 and 1996, obesity increased from 2.4 to 6.9 per cent in men and from 7.0 to 12.5 per cent in women. In simple terms, obesity arises when people consume more energy than they expend, either by eating too much or exercising too little.

It may seem strange to sound an alarm about obesity while so much attention is being directed at rising food prices. (See, for example, this piece by Martin Wolf.) Obesity, however, is a serious problem in many middle-income countries, perhaps outstripping the number of undernourished individuals. A slightly dated article in Foreign Policy suggests that China, Mexico, Brazil, and Togo all have higher rates of obesity than undernourishment.

While higher food prices may put a dent in this trend, that's not entirely clear in advance. It will depend on how individuals at risk for obesity respond to price changes - and they may opt for cheaper, less healthier food if that's what is available. So what should be done about this serious health threat?

Wells thinks he knows the answer - and the culprit. No, it's not poor choices about personal behavior - the companies purveying the food are to blame. According to Wells:

What is really driving the obesity epidemic is not increased dietary intake, or decreased activity levels, but the web of economic strategies and commerical interests that cause individual people to change or maintain certain behaviours. The way industry understands and manipulates individuals' behaviour is fundamental to the growth of the obesogenic niche...The foods that maximise profit just happen to be those high in sugar or fat. They are cheap to produce, easy to brand and market, and easy to stock in the supermarket aisles.

Without proposing anything specific, Wells suggests that the government needs to take action to combat this web of commerical interests. But I have to wonder - if food prices continue to rise and the Brazilian government were to place restrictions on the cheapest kinds of foods, what happens to those in the lowest income brackets, particularly the urban poor who presumably have less access to cheap fresh foods than their rural cousins?

As it turns out, the U.S. may end up providing at least a partial example of just what the effects of such a policy are. The city of New York has instituted a number of restrictions on fast food restaurants, the latest being a requirement that menus have to prominently display the calorie counts of all items. The Becker-Posner blog has been hosting a very interesting debate on the topic. Becker and Posner don't agree on this particular issue - here is an excerpt from Becker:

Another argument made for interventions in the fast food industry and sales of other foods is that individuals are somehow duped into eating too much, and into eating unhealthy foods. As a result, they gain weight, and become vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. Yet it is hard to justify the word "duped" when studies show that much of the growth in obesity has been due to the development of cheap fast foods that consumers find tasty, and also to the growth of television, computer games, the Internet, and other attractive activities that are sedentary. Increased consumption of low priced tasty foods and changed time allocation toward more sedentary leisure and work activities would be optimal responses according to any model of human behavior... Special theories about consumers being duped, misled by advertising, etc are not needed to explain what are normal responses to low prices and new technologies.


Ryan Hahn

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