About obesity

I am taking the opportunity of being at CMU for a semester and attending a course on behavioral economics and public policy. Behavioral economics is a topic that caught my attention a while ago and it’s been interesting to see it under the lens of public policy. The course is quite American-centered, and being a non-American (or “alien”, as the government likes to call me) makes it only more interesting. I am trying to understand what is the mindset, what is the “normal” around here, and I am still in awe every now and then. It’s a good state to be in. But anyway…

Today in class the subject of obesity was briefly mentioned. It is seen as a public health problem, and we were studying ways (read, public policies) to motivate people to loose weight. But that’s treating the symptom, not the cause. I like to treat causes, seems more effective. So, for the reasons why obesity is a problem, it was mentioned: decrease in food prices (specially unhealthy food), lack of time (arguably not true, we just suck at time management), sedentary lives, working parents and larger portions (why America? why??). We might add dining out and drinking soda like crazy to that list, as discussed here. Fair enough. These all look like reasonable reasons for a less healthy diet and consequent increase on obesity. Then I had an epiphany: those reasons are not America-exclusive. People are more stressed everywhere, both parents are working everywhere, sedentary lives are everywhere, cheap fast food and soda is available everywhere. So what creates this enormous demand for big portions of deep fried chicken in America specifically? [1]

Unfortunately I do not have an answer for that. What I know is that the unhealthy eating seems to be an acceptable thing. I never saw so many ads for food as I see it on TV here. Really. If you are ever in the US and have a chance to watch some TV, do it. Even for half an hour. It is an interesting experience (not only because of the food ads). I have the feeling that one in every three ads is about food. And not healthy food: fried chicken, giant burgers, 2 feet (~60 cms) pizza, a burrito stuffed with three types of different melted cheese, pancakes made with buttery croissant dough, chocolate cookies filled with more chocolate and marshmallows… you name it. Ironically, another third fraction of the commercials are dedicated to medicaments. As if it is not enough to bombard people with ads for greasy and processed food, they go to the next level and actually *scorn* healthy eating. Just take a look at this or that. Americans, do you have any idea how absurd it is to have an ad like that? This should have never ever been approved!! I would boycott Domino’s if I ever ate there.

I am not sure if these ads can be counted as a cause or effect of obesity, it is a chicken-and-egg problem. What I know is that regulating such things properly will do no harm, but only good [2]. It’s a no-brainer. On top of motivating people to loose weight, how about cutting on the temptation for eating in the first place?

[1] As a side note, Brazil is also not the healthiest country around. And I lived there, and even so I cannot explain what happens… Seems to be a cultural thing (that needs to change!).

[2] Regulation is needed when people lack the common sense and allow such horrendous ads. Unfortunately, those that make regulations are also people.

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