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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Weighing In

You drool at the sight of it, and feel euphoria when you eat it. Fast foods, sweet treats and savoury snacks are a common naughty treat. They are cheap, they taste great and are convenient to purchase. But foods packed with sugar, trans and saturated fats are literally killers. So who is responsible for that? Us, for not being in control of our eating? The fast-food industry, for marketing us deep-fried death? The government, for letting us stuff our gobs? Andrew Mahoney investigates.

Responsibility: Individual vs Companies vs Government
One of the sticking points in the obesity debate is political – lobby groups, politicians and citizens have been calling for action for years. Gareth Morgan has advocated putting a tax on unhealthy foods. Fizz, a lobby group, has called for the banning of fizzy drinks. And even in New York, the size of these beverages has been restricted to 500 mL in an attempt to reduce people drinking them. The question then must be asked: do we truly have the right to eat what we please, or does the government have some role in deciding?

There are those who blame the individual, as they see it as the consumers’ choices which lead to obesity. This is true in part. All of us have purchased a chocolate bar when there was a perfectly healthy apple next to it. We are all inclined to purchase our desires, if we have the money to do so, and this means that if we favour chocolate over fruit and vegetables we will buy it. The need to feed families on small incomes makes the task of eating healthy particularly difficult: fatty foods are cheaper than their healthier counterparts.

But in a capitalist society, businesses want to make a profit. In order to make profits, businesses need to charge a price to cover all the costs. So, if it costs more for a business to produce organic foods, and it is likely to be more profitable for them to sell processed foods, you can guess which ones they’ll produce. Yet, there is a disconnect between the food we should eat (healthy foods) and the food that is readily and cheaply available for us. What should be produced in large quantities is not being produced, because society demands the fatty foods we crave.

This leads on to the idea that the government is to blame for the problem. Some people believe that is ultimately the government’s responsibility to ensure that their citizens are healthy and well-fed. If the government wants to make more people eat healthier, it is argued, they should enact policies to ensure people eat the correct foods. Subsidising healthier foods for those on lower incomes, taxing high-sugar or fatty products or, as an extreme, banning products and businesses. But the problem with these solutions is that they all have a cost. To subsidise healthy meals is to force me and you to pay more in tax. To tax foods and ban foods and businesses is to remove choice and freedom, and our democracies stand for those principles. After all, if you don’t have a choice over something as basic and simple as what you can and can’t put in your mouth and eat, then what freedom do you have? Why should the liberties of the majority be removed to stop the cravings of the minority? It hardly seems fair if we are all equal.

Convenience vs Price and the Media
When it comes to the choice between healthy but time-intensive meals and cheap but fast ones, people will always chose what is convenient and cheap. Students could take the time to make a Thai salad, but lining up at McDonald’s is far easier. If it is more convenient to purchase a meal already made, we will do it; same as if it’s cheaper.

Individuals with low incomes or low wealth are more likely to suffer the health problems associated with the consumption of bad foods. And sadly, this is the case: according to the latest New Zealand Health Survey, “Obesity rates are significantly higher among New Zealanders living in socioeconomically deprived areas”. One group most affected by this are Pacific Islanders; according to the same report, “Pacific adults have comparatively high rates of obesity (68 per cent) and diagnosed diabetes (13 per cent)”.

What also used to be common practice of meals being made from scratch has been overtaken with the reheating of microwave meals or a purchase from takeaway and delivery stores. With more individuals working harder and longer hours, it has become too difficult for people to balance their work-life with healthy eating.

What underpins all of this, and helps to both sustain and increase the number of food-offenders, is the media. Read the newspaper, watch the television, go online – I doubt there has ever been one time we have done any of this without an advert of some sort popping up. The media have made fast foods and junk foods common practice, as they influence what we do with the money we have. This has led to a pervasive culture of accepting fast foods and processed foods as a staple in our diets.

The media, coupled with our busy lifestyles and the high costs for healthy foods, have resulted in this high-sugar and high-fat Western diet, that results not only in increasing obesity, but also diabetes, cardiovascular disease and the increased risks of heart attacks.

There are plenty of solutions to this problem, including: increasing exercise; making exercise compulsory in the workplace and schools for an hour a day; and subsidising healthier foods for families on low incomes. One solution that is currently of interest to New Zealand is a tax.

Simply, this is a tax on foods that either have a high percentage of fats or high levels of sugar. It works to make these foods more expensive and thus curb the amount of these foods purchased. Taxes like this have existed: there was a fat tax in Denmark, there is one in Japan and there are soda taxes (taxing fizzy drinks based on their sugar content) currently in place in Norway and Mexico. These taxes, however, have been hard to continue; in fact, Denmark’s fat tax only lasted one year due to the perceived effect it had on the economy and jobs. But nonetheless, this policy was seen to have worked during the time it was implemented. A fat tax has recently been suggested by Gareth Morgan, and has since gained interest from the Greens.

Instead of playing the blame game, we should realise that our obesity problem isn’t any one group’s fault. Governments, businesses and individuals should realise that everyone needs to do their part if we are going to knock out the fat.

Students could take the time to make a Thai salad, but lining up at McDonald’s is far easier.


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