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What Are Three Ways the Government Can Help Solve the Obesity Problem in America?

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Obesity is a disease and we need to avoid thinking of it as a simple matter of “eat less, exercise more.” We need to think of the social and economic issues and the many factors that give rise to obesity, including clinical factors such as genetic makeup, medical condition or use of certain medications; psycho-social factors, including financial status, stress, depression and education level; and environmental factors like food insecurity, crime rate, neighborhood walkability, availability of green spaces and community and school support of a healthy lifestyle.

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When discussing the issue of obesity in America, it seems to be that there is plenty of blame to go around and most of that blame falls on fast food companies. When searching for a concrete answer to the question used as my title, you will find none because there isn’t one. Obesity is the next major epidemiologic challenge facing today's doctors, with the annual allocation of healthcare resources for the disease and related comorbidities projected to exceed $150 billion in the United States. The incidence of obesity has risen in the United States over the past 30 years; 60% of adults are currently either obese or overweight. Obesity is associated with a higher incidence of a number of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. When asked this simple question, it is easy to blame the obesity problem on fast food considering 8 out of 10 Americans consume fast food according to a report done by the Huffington Post. But after doing more research you will notice that this isn’t necessarily the case. American obesity can be blamed on a variety of things; lifestyle, accessibility of fast food, and what we are taught about food growing up. However, when the only options you are provided with by the food industry are all unhealthy, obesity cannot be avoided. Obesity has been framed as a topic of personal responsibly for a long time. For many, the fundamental notion has always been that if you stop eating junk food and eat “healthy”, you will maintain a healthy weight. According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control’s 2007-2008 Health and Nutrition Examination survey, it was found that 73.7% of all Americans 20 years old or older were overweight, obese, or extremely obese. That is a lot of fat people and it is hard to believe that fast food alone is responsible for 70% of adult Americans being overweight. The idea of eating healthy however is arbitrary.

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Some of the policy options will be making existing laws and regulations less obesogenic. For example, an unintended consequence of regulations prohibiting the importation of fruit such as bananas and apples into Australia may mean that consumers pay more (and thus presumably eat less) of these foods. Conversely, subsidies on sugar and plant oil production will make energy dense foods cheaper (and thus stimulate consumption). People's consumption patterns are very price dependent [Turrell G.1996]. An 'obesity impact assessment' may be a form of health impact assessment that needs to be applied to such policies at the time of their formulation. Many government policy options have significant commercial implications and therefore it is not surprising that some of these proposals (such as banning junk food marketing to children (Hawkes C.2004) encounter heavy opposition from the corporate sector. This opposition, which is currently being led by the food and advertising sector but will no doubt be joined by the automobile and oil companies in the future, is one of the major hurdles that governments face in making regulations for obesity prevention. 'Reducing red tape' has been a strong policy direction from Federal and State governments for some years, so making more regulations will also run counter to this. For some policy interventions, such as the universal measurement of body mass index (BMI) in children and sending a 'BMI Report Card' back to parents, there may be public opposition to contend with as well.

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Overall, one option is to encourage food companies to voluntarily alter their products or marketing to reduce health risks. "Food companies understand how customers respond to their products and marketing better than anyone and could make many changes that would promote health. Food companies have indeed been responding to the obesity crisis by marketing products that have lower calorie contents by substitution (as with 'diet' beverages) and more recently by offering smaller portions. However, as publicly traded companies responsive to the interests of their shareholders, food companies cannot make decisions that will lower profits, and larger portion sizes are more profitable because most costs of delivering food items to consumers are fixed.

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Sacks G, Swinburn BA, Lawrence M. A systematic policy approach to changing the food and physical activity environments to prevent obesity. Aust N Z J Health Policy. 5:13.

Turrell G. Structural, material and economic influences on the food-purchasing choices of socioeconomic groups. Aust N Z J Public Health.

French SA. Pricing effects on food choices. J Nutr. 2003;133:841S–843S..

Hawkes C. Marketing food to children: the global regulatory environment. World Health Organisation; 2004.

Arkansas Act 1220 of 2003 to Combat Childhood Obesity. Little Rock, Arkansas , Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health,; 2006. p. 34.


Swinburn B. Sustaining dietary changes for preventing obesity and diabetes: lessons learned from the successes of other epidemic control programs. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2002;11

Mercer SL, Green LW, Rosenthal AC, Husten CG, Khan LK, Dietz WH. Possible lessons from the tobacco experience for obesity control. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;

Fichtenberg CM, Glantz SA. Association of the California Tobacco Control Program with declines in cigarette consumption and mortality from heart disease.

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What Are Three Ways the Government Can Help Solve the Obesity Problem in America?
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