The American obesity epidemic

The yummy taste and satisfaction derived from the unbelievably cheap $1 double-decker burger may seem long-lasting, but its translation to obesity, its health effects and extremely high government health care spending in the face of a mind-boggling budget deficit makes paying for the hidden cost unsustainable. The real cost, which economists refer to as the “opportunity cost,” is the forgone alternative, which in this case is the individual’s health and taxpayers’ money that the government is spending on sky-rocketing health care costs in the U.S. Obesity accounts for 10 percent of annual heath care costs in the U.S. and has been tagged as the fastest-growing disease and the secondmost common cause of preventable death in our country. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third (35.7 percent) of adults in the U.S. are obese. Should we keep paying the hidden cost? I am sure it’s clear that we all pay at higher folds, but do we want to keep paying? Most of these costs have been paid as hospital bills for the management of diseases caused by or closely linked to obesity which include: hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, cancers, strokes and many others. There is hardly a week in which a study on rising rates of obesity in the U.S. is not churned out. There have been a lot of proposals on ways to tackle this problem; however, tackling the urgent and foundational problem of bridging the access gap between healthy and unhealthy foods is essential in achieving positive results in the battle against obesity.

Different studies have attributed the cause of obesity in the U.S. to the wide gap in the costs of healthy and unhealthy foods. A healthy diet may seem like it requires a lot of money. The reality is that eating a healthy diet can save more money in the short and long term, not only for you but also for the nation. It is cheaper to feed a family fast food with all sorts of unhealthy foods than to take a family out for a salad bar in a restaurant. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, comparing costs of food items in different categories since 1985, the cost of healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables have increased by about 120 percent when compared to an increase in the cost of sugar-sweetened beverages of about 20 percent. Are we driving away the healthy diets from the menu of the poor? Numerous strategies for health promotion over the years have presumed that good nutrition was simply a matter of making the right choices. Access to healthier diets could be sharply limited in low-income families due to inability to afford the cost of healthy diets, rendering previous strategies inappropriate. However, I strongly urge that issues of food costs receive attention. There is a need for a governmental and policy intervention to subsidize the cost of healthy foods and raise taxes on unhealthy foods.

Firstly, we need the establishment of a federal program that increases access to healthy foods by subsidizing the cost. Families that chose to go for unhealthy foods due to the cheaper cost would have the opportunity of buying healthy foods at affordable prices, which will in turn drive down the obesity rates in the U.S. The government needs to subsidize healthy foods at this level. Affordability of healthy foods has been linked to reduced risk of obesity.

Secondly, increasing taxes on the most widely consumed unhealthy foods, such as soda, candy, cookies, etc., through the same federal program would prevent excessive consumption of these food items. Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. In attempts to reduce spending on food, families are driven to make unhealthy choices that seem “cheaper.” Increased access to fast foods has also been linked to higher risk of obesity.

The time  is now for us, as a country, to join hands and utilize the window of opportunity presented to us by the  obesity awareness created by the media and the support gathered by first lady Michelle Obama’s campaigns on the prevention of obesity in our darling country. We need our policy makers to set and implement policies that will drive down the cost of healthy foods relative to unhealthy ones, thereby making healthy foods affordable, improving families’ choices and ultimately halting and reversing the obesity trend in the U.S.