Zipcodes are a good indicator of a person’s obesity level, claims Dr. Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. In a fascinating interview for Australian media he says:
The socioeconomic dimension of the obesity epidemic becomes apparent once you start looking at maps where the obese people live…obesity rates in Seattle can vary by a factor of five depending on address…Obesity rates may be as low as 5 per cent or 2 per cent in one area and 20 or 30 per cent in another. It all had to do with address.
This harsh truth exemplifies more than anything that obesity is a social and economic challenge to be dealt with by government agencies, and not solely by individuals. The poor pay less and get more calories, while the rich pay more to get less calories. Or as Drewnowski frames it – making a decision to eat healthier entails economic costs.
That’s because nutrient dense foods like fresh vegetables and fruit tend to be more expensive than calorie dense sugar-fat-salt combos that are manufactured from subsidized crops.
“It’s difficult to over-eat celery or spinach – low energy density; it is so easy to over-eat chocolate and potato chips. So the paradox is this – you actually pay less to eat more, and the wealthy pay more to eat less.”
So while individuals can try to optimize by buying seasonal produce, eating less meat and more legumes, the easy / default choice (as economists know) is to buy the unhealthy and convenient foods.
Drewnowski suggests a public health measure in the form of an economic incentive to eat healthy. This, by shifting government subsidies to healthier crops – fruits and vegetables. Michelle Obama is trying to convince supermarket chains to open shop in low income neighborhoods known as food deserts. Others are calling for soda bans and taxes.
What do you think? Should the USDA take money allocated to corn and soy farmers and hand it over to growers of kale and celery? Should sugary foods be taxed?
(Disclosure: Adam Drewnowski is an adviser to Fooducate.)