Obesity a Side Effect of the Free Market?

A recent study suggests that obesity is a side effect of free market policies.  Researchers at the University of Michigan looked at 26 wealthy nations and examined the ratio of fast food restaurants to their respective populations.  They found that countries with a higher density of fast food restaurants per capita — such as the US and Canada — had much higher rates of obesity in comparison with countries with a lower density of fast food restaurants per capita—such as Norway and Japan. On the higher end, the United States was found to have 7.52 fast food restaurants per 100,000 people and Canada 7.43 fast food restaurants per 100,000 people. Obesity rates in the United States were cited at 31.3 percent for men and 33.2 percent for women. In Canada, 23.2 percent of men and 22.9 percent of women were categorized as obese. On the other end of the spectrum, in Japan, obesity rates are very low, at 2.9 percent for men and 3.3 percent for women and the study found that the country has only 0.13 fast food restaurants per 100,000 people. Norway also has low obesity rates and only 0.19 restaurants per capita, according to the study. The lead researcher explains that “the countries with the highest obesity rates and fast food restaurants are those in the forefront of market liberalization, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, versus countries like Japan and Norway, with more regulated and restrictive trade policies.” He says that this not by chance, and that obesity research largely overlooks the global market forces behind the epidemic.

For the study, fast food is food sold in restaurants or stores with preheated or precooked ingredients, which is given to the customer in a packaged form– typically a hamburger, fries and a soft drink.  Fast food consumption has been shown to be associated with body weight, as well as insulin resistance and type II diabetes, another major worldwide public health threat.

Dr. Mark Fusco, who is a leading bariatric surgeon in Florida, spoke with us about the study. He said, “The causes of obesity are multifactorial, complex, and varied. Although population genetics plays a very significant role for the predisposition to obesity, the marked increase in the problem in a few generations speak to the importance of environmental factors. Whether one of these factors is the availability of fast food, or if fast food is a surrogate marker for some other factor, is impossible to say in this type of population based study. Given the gravity of the obesity problem worldwide, however, an attempt at answering these questions is critically important.”

Another interesting study published last year found that the proximity of fast food restaurants in one’s neighborhood has an impact on consumption of fast food. You can read about that study here.

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