Is the Free Market Making Us Obese?

A new study links financial deregulation and the domination of fast food with weight gain in 25 nations.

fast food obesity

A McDonald's promotion in Poland. (Photo: David Berkowitz/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Blame for the financial crisis and the Great Recession has repeatedly been laid at the foot of financial deregulation over the past five years. And in years when employment has been hard to come by, the fallout from the bursting of the housing bubble has been cast as the culprit behind a growing hunger epidemic in the United States. That debate may touch on issues of obesity—so many poor Americans eating cheap calories to survive in a lousy economy—but it doesn’t implicitly blame the free market for the extra pounds.

A new report published by the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, however, proposes that financial deregulation, fast food, and body-mass index are indeed related—and that the chain restaurants that thrive in the economic environment created by deregulated markets have significantly contributed to the uptick in obesity in high-income countries like the United States.

The study compared the number of fast-food transactions per capita, BMI, and market deregulation (using the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom) in 25 high-income countries between 1999 and 2008. The study found that when the number of fast-food purchases made in a year went from 26.6 to 32.7, there was a corresponding hike in the average national BMI. All told, for each fast-food meal sold, there was a 3 percent increase in BMI. 

The authors of the study note that their findings follow an established trend in research showing that "countries adopting what are considered market-liberal policies experience faster increase in both fast food consumption and mean BMI.” Yet they don’t claim to understand exactly why deregulation and hamburgers go hand in hand. “One possibility,” they write, “is that indiscriminate market deregulation favors global food chains at the expense of smaller farmers and local food systems.” The global expansion of McDonald’s in recent years certainly supports that hypothesis.

“Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity,” says Dr. Roberto De Vogli of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and the lead author of the study.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, says, “Policies targeting food and nutrition are needed across several sectors including agriculture, industry, health, social welfare and education.”

Yet such a comprehensive approach has not been undertaken. U.S. mayors, federal agencies, Mexico, and most recently, a Native American nation have all tried a piecemeal approach to combating obesity, addressing individual facets of the problem. But the commonality among nearly all of these diverse campaigns has been that the regulations put a greater financial burden on the less fortunate—which is neither fair nor likely to succeed. 

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