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Cheap Foods Are Making Americans Fatter



Cheap food is the reason millions of Americans are obese, new research suggests. According to a study published in CA: Cancer Journal for Clinicians, access to cheap foods is driving America's obesity epidemic. This research finding supports other evidence that socioeconomics plays a vital role in America's ongoing battle to curtail epidemic obesity. 

Researchers sought to understand the role the environment plays epidemic obesity. In order to accomplish this goal, Dr. Roland Sturm, senior economist at the RAND Corporation and his colleague Ruopang An of the University of Illinois examined data that covered changes to the environment of all racial groups over an extended length of time. They were interested in the contribution various environmental factors had on obesity, these factors included the following

  • social - family, school, workplace, mass media, food marketing, community, etc.
  • economic and policy - direct pricing, taxes, subsidies, serving size regulation, nutrition labels, etc.
  • physical - urban design, sidewalks, parks, exercise facilities, fast food outlets, transportation,  etc.

The researchers believe that changes to the environment rather than differences across groups is driving the obesity epidemic.


All Racial And Ethnic Groups Are Getting Heavier

They noted that all racial and ethnic groups in the US gained weight, if we are to better understand how to combat epidemic obesity, they recommend looking at temporal changes in the environment for groups as a whole rather than studying subgroups at a particular point in time.

For example, non Hispanic blacks and women gained weight at a faster rate than other groups studied. Yet, there was little difference between the weight gain of a person with limited college education when compared with a person who does not have a college degree. But when you compare a person with a limited college education to someone with a college degree, there are noticeable differences between the weight gain of these two individuals.

Since men and women across all racial and ethnic groups appear to be gaining weight the cause is likely to be environmental. But what would that be? Sturm posits that in recent decades Americans have greater access to leisure activities and transportation, yet work hours have become greatly reduced.

With the increased convenience of leisure time and the availability of cheap foods, Americans are steadily gaining weight.

His analysis also debunks the notion that physical inactivity is contributing to the weight gain among Americans. Whereas it would appear that people aren't participating in exercise, his research suggests just the opposite.

In fact, according to Sturm's findings Americans have been devoting more time to exercise.

For example, the percentage of people who devote at least 30 minutes to moderate exercise 5 or more per day has increased as well as those who engage in vigorous physical exercise for 20 minutes per day for 3 or more days per week increased from 46% in 2001 to  51% in 2009.

So the weight gain, according to Sturm's results, are best explained by the foods people have been eating. The research findings point to an increased consumption of carbohydrates although high fructose corn syrup itself a popular sweetener has contributed little to the weight gain.


Is Junk Food The Problem?

Also perplexing is the finding that people are actually increasing the amounts of fruits and vegetables they consume i.e. Americans are eating more of these foods compared to earlier decades. While these foods are much healthier than the empty calories of junk food, Americans are continuing to gain weight rather than losing it.

He also noted that increased consumption of sweetened beverages coincided with the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables noting that daily consumption of sugar sweetened beverages increased by 6 ounces 1998 to 2004.

This finding is similar to those of researchers from Johns Hopkins University whom learned that Americans who consumed diet soft drinks where gaining weight. Those scientists concluded that overweight and obese people who drank more diet soda also ate more solid food calories than their overweight and obese counterparts who simply drank sugar sweetened beverages.

Essentially the Johns Hopkins University study and Sturm's findings seem to be suggesting that people who consume foods which they think won't contribute to weight gain are also eating more of other foods which do cause them to gain weight because they erroneously believe that it won't cause them to gain weight.

But while there is ample evidence that low quality foods contribute to weight gain, there is other evidence to support that the opposite notion.

Several  years ago researchers from the Department of Popular Medicine at Harvard Medical School looked at the impact that proximity to fast food restaurants had on weight gain. Those scientists found no evidence that living near fast food restaurants - a source of cheap food - contributed to weight gain.

In fact they found that people in lower income areas gained more weight than people living in affluent areas leading them to conclude that stress and limited access to high quality food is the culprit.


No Easy Answers

In recent years, a growing number of groups have called for the increased taxes on low quality foods as well as other governmental action aimed at discouraging people who eating unhealthy foods in favor of making healthier choices. In fact, some scientists have reached the conclusion that globalization is contributing to obesity on a global scale.

Yet Sturm doesn't believe that increasing the price of low quality foods will necessarily solve the problem. He points to the inability of the US and Denmark to make low quality foods less desirable to consumers.

He believes that epidemic obesity is "is a phenomenon over time" and that while there are disparities in the prevalence of obesity across all racial groups at every point in time, "reducing health disparities is different from addressing the obesity epidemic. "

Sturm concludes that "an emphasis on reducing discretionary calorie consumption, particularly SSBs and salted snacks, may be a promising lever to reduce overweight and obesity." But adds a word of caution: "Although increasing fruit and vegetable consumption may be a laudable goal for other health reasons, it is unlikely to be an effective tool for obesity prevention."


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Article References

Sturm R, & An R (2014). Obesity and economic environments. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians PMID: 24853237

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"Cheap Foods Are Making Americans Fatter" copyright © 2014 Living Fit, Healthy and Happy(SM).  All Rights Reserved.




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