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Charles L. Baum, Published June 30 2012

Don’t fight fat with obese bureaucracy

The recent four-part HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation” has reignited public discourse over how we can reduce obesity rates. Coinciding with the film’s release was a nearly 500-page report from the Institute of Medicine that offered plenty of solutions – the majority of them governmental.

Can the blunt tool of government solve obesity? We have every reason to be skeptical.

Obesity is a simple math problem – eat and drink more calories than you burn off, and you’ll put on pounds. But the causes are much more complex across society.

A new study I conducted with Lehigh University’s Shin-Yi Chou sheds light on this by finding that there’s no one cause of obesity by a longshot.

Using government body-mass-index data spanning a 27-year period, we analyzed multiple potential factors in the recent rise in American obesity, including food prices, physical activity at work, restaurant prevalence, urbanization, and food stamp receipts.

Based on the current conventional wisdom, you might guess that food prices or restaurant prevalence would affect obesity most. But among the variables we studied, the most significant factor in BMI increases was the decline in smoking. Cigarettes are an appetite inhibitor, and we’ve all heard of people who have gained 10 pounds or so after quitting smoking. But the decline in smoking – the biggest single contributor to the rise in obesity rates – only accounted for about 2 percent of the increase.

The other factors we studied that influenced obesity rates were even smaller. Increased urban sprawl, which can lead to more driving and less walking, accounted for only 0.7 percent of the rise in BMI.

Obesity is the result of overconsumption of calories. And as our research demonstrated, people find a variety of ways to do this.

Consider the soda tax, an IOM-endorsed measure that has popped up in various state legislatures the past few years as a way to ostensibly fight fat (it also helps that it provides revenue to obese bureaucracy). The idea is that making soda cost more will discourage its consumption. It’s a simple enough theory, but studies continue to find that soda taxes won’t have much effect on weight. Why? Because people substitute and start drinking other beverages like milk and fruit juice that have just as many calories as soft drinks.

Simply put, it’s not practical to rely on government to fight obesity. Even if the proposals were promising – and they mostly aren’t – the political system is slow and subject to lobbying and loopholes. (And let’s not forget it was government that ironically pushed the biggest factor contributing to the rise in obesity rates – quitting smoking.)

Instead, change best comes through consumer demand. And demanding healthier foods may not be so difficult. Interestingly, the prevailing “cheap food” narrative as an explanation for obesity now faces further scrutiny. A new USDA study finds that fruits and vegetables actually cost less (by weight) on the whole than “junk” food, meaning there isn’t a barrier to filling up on less calorie-dense food.

Baum, Ph.D., is a professor of Economics at Middle Tennessee State University.