The prevalence of obesity doubled in adults and tripled in children between the 1970s and 2000. According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control, the epidemic shows no signs of abating. Nearly four out of 10 adults are obese; for children, it’s nearly two out of 10. Most 2-year-olds today will develop obesity by age 35.
In adults, obesity substantially increases the risk for some of the most feared illnesses, like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. At all ages, obesity is associated with social isolation, depression and other major mental health problems.
The economic burden of obesity hits low-income and otherwise disadvantaged populations the hardest, exacerbating income and wealth inequality. With insulin now costing up to $900 a month, a diagnosis of diabetes can mean financial ruin for a low-wage worker.
Obesity doesn’t just hurt individuals’ pocketbooks; it also affects the national budget deficit. The epidemic substantially increases federal entitlement spending for medical costs through Medicare, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, while the resulting lower worker productivity reduces tax revenues.
Farm policies have made low-nutritional commodities exceptionally cheap, providing the food industry with enormous incentive to market processed foods comprised mainly of refined grains and added sugars. In contrast, vegetables, whole fruits, legumes, nuts and high-quality proteins are much more expensive and, in “food deserts,” often unavailable. Processed foods are heavily advertised, even in educational materials directed at young children. And as cheap calories have flooded the environment, opportunities to burn off those calories at school, in recreation and through physically active modes of transportation have declined.
A counterweight to the corrosive political influence and manipulative marketing practices of “Big Food” manufacturers is needed. It would be helpful to impose a tax on processed foods, and use the proceeds to subsidize whole foods.
A ban junk food advertising to young children, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and practiced in some European countries, should be initiated. Research shows that children below the age of 8 years are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against the manipulation of advertisements.