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Obesity and the unhealthy economy

13 March 2013 By Edward Hadas

Obesity is a matter of free choice – no one forces people to get fat – but few people are happy with the result. In the last few decades, the freedom to eat has too often turned into slavery to the immoderate desire for more.

In the United States, the world leader in obesity, the trend toward higher body weights began more than a century ago. Researchers John Komlos and Marek Brabec show that the average body mass, weight adjusted for height, has moved upward fairly steadily – from too low for optimal health right through optimal to the current too high level. Most visibly, and alarmingly, the gap between the heaviest 30 percent and the rest has widened significantly in the last few decades. There is no end in sight.

The problem of obesity is an adverse side effect of one of the greatest economic liberations ever, the freedom from want of food. Until shortly before 1900, food shortages were nearly always and everywhere a lively possibility, and all too often a grim reality. Now, although inadequate nutrition still blights the lives of more than a billion people in the world, residents of developed economies enjoy food in excess.

This change from shortage to surplus should have provoked a moral analysis. In the old days, the ethics of abundance were almost irrelevant. Moralists chastised gluttony, but for most people necessity imposed moderation, in practice if not in desire. And farmers did not need a course in philosophy to decide to produce as much as they could.

In the new era, physical need is no longer a constraint and unhealthy eating is now an everyday reality. The threat must be countered by individuals, food producers – no longer primarily farmers, but companies with processing plants and factories – and governments. All have failed to live up to the challenge. The result is that food is often not used as it should be, to provide the benefits and pleasures of healthy eating.

What should individuals do? They can and should count calories, read labels, avoid “junk food” and so forth, but above all they need to turn to the traditional religious and philosophical wisdom about the virtue of self-control. Moderation in eating is a skill which nearly every modern person needs, like the ability to drive or mastery of the Internet.

This is not a painful discipline, not with so much tasty and healthy food readily available, but the virtue is in scant supply. People have mostly responded to bounteous food as they have to all other varieties of industrial plenty, by buying ever more and looking for ever lower prices. When it comes to food, that approach is disastrous. Undisciplined munching and feasting leads directly to obesity, while the heedless desire for low prices and vast quantities encourages producers to skimp on quality – witness the current scandal of mislabelling horse as beef – and to concoct products which please the taste buds but harm the rest of the body.

The demand for junk food in an economy of plenty is an alarming cultural sign, and so is the supply. What are food producers doing? Some of what they do is good – food is safer and more readily available than ever before – but the largest companies all follow a narrow commercial logic, aiming above all to sell as much as possible and to generate as high a profit as possible. If nutrition doesn’t pay, they basically ignore it. If sugar, salt and umami increase sales, they add more. In practice, this approach amounts to the promotion of gluttony.

Producers need a nobler objective. They should recognise that the customer is not always right, that it is often better to ignore consumers’ preferences than to pander to their self-destructive appetites. They should enthrone nutrition as a higher goal than profitability, just as airlines put safety before profit. They should not manufacture junk food. If people want to stuff themselves on empty calories, they should have to prepare their own nutritional poisons.

Finally, governments have been slow to recognise that obesity is a social problem which they can help address. In the last few years, legislators and regulators have started to wake up. But the current menu of plans and programmes which attempt to educate consumers and restrain producers still looks thin in comparison to the mountains of fat.

An economic analysis of obesity can help explain why the system makes too much bad food too readily available, but I think moral analysis is more illuminating. Individuals have not cultivated restraint, corporations have put the lesser good of profit before the greater one of promoting health, and governments have shirked their responsibility for ethical leadership. There will be no substantial changes until the moral challenge is faced head-on. Neither science nor the marketplace can substitute for willpower.


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