It is a tribute to Australia’s prosperity that people in poverty are more likely to be overweight than underweight. But rather than a celebration of the achievements of economic growth, this has instead led to cries of an “obesity epidemic”.
For instance, Ross Gittins argued (Opinion, 28/6) that this is a case of market failure that we need the government to remedy.
It is clear that the average weight of Australians is increasing. But obesity is a complicated area, and health advocates would do better to analyse the long-term causes and effects before rushing into calls for government regulation.
Using the standard measure of obesity, the body mass index (which, in simple terms, compares weight with height), obesity is on the rise. At present, 21 per cent of Australians are classed as “obese”.
However, the medical literature is highly sceptical of the validity of this measure that takes no account of body composition, such as muscle or bone. It may be that many people now classified as obese are, in fact, “big-boned”.
Our consumption habits also tell a complex story. OECD data shows that daily energy consumption per Australian has actually decreased since the early 1960s by about 125 kilojoules. Similarly, our sugar consumption has also gone down. Many nations, including the United States, have seen increases along these lines, but these figures indicate that Australian consumption is getting more, rather than less, healthy.
Even more surprising: a study from the Centres for Disease Control in the United States found that “overweight” people had a lower risk of death than those of normal weight. Not only that, but this lower risk partly cancelled out the increased deaths from obesity.
But we are getting heavier. Part of this is to do with the composition of our diet.
As the millions of supporters of the Atkins diet will argue, what we eat now is radically different from what our ancestors ate 50 or 100 years ago. But it is also true that what those ancestors ate is radically different from what their ancestors ate. Food consumption has been one of the biggest changes brought about by our centuries-long process of globalisation.
More recently, technological change and supply-line innovation in food manufacturing has drastically reduced the cost in time and money of food preparation. It is arguably a wise economic decision to eat out rather than in, especially when factoring in the time of shopping and cooking a meal.
As the quality and variety of manufactured food has gone up, its price has gone down.
But most of the recent growth in weight is not directly attributable to our food.
A study by the economists Darius Lakdawala and Tomas Philipson found that only 40 per cent of weight gain since the 1970s is due to changes in diet. Rather, the large part of our weight increase can be attributable to changes in lifestyle and work practices.
Contrary to what Gittins has argued, this is not an opportunity for government to intervene.
First, government regulation doesn’t seem to work. Sweden has every program on the book to combat childhood obesity. Advertising aimed at children under 12 is banned. Sports programs are heavily subsidised. Healthy cooking is part of the curriculum. But the number of overweight Swedish children has tripled in the past 15 years.
The market is remarkably good at educating people on the negative consequences of their decisions. Balancing against the advertising for high-sugar snacks, television programmers have provided shows like What’s Good for You and The Biggest Loser.
All of these programs have been produced not by government, but by corporations eager to maximise their ratings, and therefore their profits.
In fact, data from the United States indicates that the number of food and restaurant commercials viewed by children has actually declined over the last decade.
Consumers are becoming more aware of the consequences of fatty and unhealthy food. This change in demand goes far past the salads at McDonald’s. Juice bars, wheatgrass shots, bioengineered food and even sushi were unheard of to Australians 50 years ago.
The notion of a government regulating to protect people against obesity used to be unthinkable, used as a parody of anti-tobacco legislation. Unfortunately, it shows us how far the political debate has moved from personal responsibility to government responsibility.
But is there a clearer area in which individual responsibility must take the fore than when choosing what we eat? Government regulation is not the solution to the obesity crisis.