Is cheap food an obesity culprit?

Amanda O'Brien
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Inactivity levels, screen time, sedentary jobs and lifestyles, poor diet (including access to fast foods and increased portion size), poverty, “food deserts” (absence of grocery stores), suburban housing developments. …

The explanations for the obesity crisis are endless. Noting all of these factors, a new study is suggesting that, above all, the reason for the North American obesity epidemic is cheap food.

One would think cheap food would be a good thing, especially given its rising cost (we know of this all too well here on the Rock). But some food might just be too cheap for our own good.

Spending less

The study, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, came to the conclusion that cheap food is an obesity culprit after reviewing more than 75 papers on the subject. As a society, it appears we are spending a much smaller share of our income on food now when compared to a few decades ago.

In the 1930s, one-quarter of disposable income was spent on food, and in the 1950s, one-fifth. Today, we spend less than one-tenth of our money on food. In addition to spending less on food over the years, we also spend less on food than any other society in the world.

The problem with spending less? It appears having a cheaper diet seems to lead us to eating more food and unhealthier food, too, the research notes. What foods are cheaper at grocery stores? Sure there are some healthier cheap foods like root veggies, eggs, apples, bananas, oranges, oats and legumes, but more often than not it’s the processed, packaged, high-calorie, high-sodium, fatty, sugary and high-fructose corn syrup laden foods that are the cheapest: pop, fruit drinks, chips, chocolate and candies, puddings, french fries, wieners, bologna, microwaveable meals, etc.

Interestingly, some common notions about the causes of obesity seem to be cast in doubt by the new research, too. Rising obesity rates coincided with increases in leisure time and not hours worked, increased fruit and vegetable availability and not a decline in healthier food intake and, finally, increased exercise.

Increased fruit and vegetable intake, increased physical activity­ and an increase in free time to do things like make healthier meals at home have all been suggested as things we should be trying to do better to help fight chronic disease and obesity. We’ve actually been doing better in the fruit and veggie and exercise departments the past 40 years, yet obesity rates are still on the incline.

Enabling junk food taxes sounds like the obvious solution here to confront obesity. However, attempts at this approach for sugar-sweetened beverages in our neighbour the U.S. have been unsuccessful to date.

In other countries like Hungary, France and most recently Mexico, where sugar taxes have recently been implemented, there isn’t really enough data yet for us to draw conclusions. Generally, other research has shown that when it comes to the price of food, the demand for most types of food is inelastic, meaning even with large price changes you would likely only see a moderate change in demand response.

This inelastic demand for foods also explains why if you subsidize the price of healthier food with money from a junk food tax, the changes in demand would be smaller than the price changes. In South Africa, where a 25 per cent rebate on healthier foods helped increase the purchase of fruits and veggies by almost 9 per cent, the subsequent drop in purchases of unhealthier foods was about seven per cent.

Preventing obesity is about eating more food such as fruits and vegetables and increasing physical activity, yes. But it’s even more so about consuming less energy. Focusing on reducing calorie intake, in particular from sugar-sweetened drinks and salty snacks, is the better way to reduce obesity rates than attempts to get us to eat more fruits and veggies, and to get more exercise.

One of the biggest poor nutrition culprits of cheap food is sugar. Regardless if you purchase cheaper food or not, the majority of people’s diets are too sweet.

Stay tuned. Next week I’ll discuss easy ways you can reduce the sugar in your diet.

Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website

Organizations: North American, A Cancer Journal

Geographic location: CA, U.S., Hungary Mexico South Africa

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