Burgers, burritos, and fast food are not the cause of obesity for the vast majority of Americans, according to a new study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.
The study directly challenges the dominant narrative of public health campaigners and political activists like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who have called for massive tax hikes and strict regulation on some the nation’s favorite food and drinks.
Researchers David Just and Brian Wansink looked at national data from 2007-8 and found there was no correlation between the amount of junk food people ate and their body mass index (BMI).
“Simply put, just because those things can lead you to get fat doesn’t mean that’s what is making us fat,” says Just.
In fact, obese people and those deemed as having a healthy weight, ate on average the same amount, according to the study published in the journal Obesity Science & Practice.
The researchers criticize previous studies that linked fast food to obesity because they were skewed by the extremely obese at one end of the spectrum and the chronically underweight on the other.
Once these distortionary effects were removed there was no major difference between the eating habits of those classified as having a healthy weight and those who were overweight.
The researchers argue that the drive to crack down on unhealthy food and drink through a range of government interventions are misguided and ignore the bigger picture when it comes to reducing obesity.
“By targeting just these vilified foods, we are creating policies that are not just highly ineffective, but may be self-defeating as it distracts from the real underlying causes of obesity.
“If you want to try and prevent obesity, or want to create policy that is going to help people, simply addressing the availability of junk foods and sodas isn’t going to do it,” says Just.
As well as being ineffective, taxes targeting lifestyle choices have come under heavy fire from economists. “Sin taxes — taxes that are intended to change the behavior of consumers—are one prominent category of taxes with a disproportionate effect on the poor,” economist Steve Horwitz wrote in a Mercatus Center paper published in July.
This is because poorer Americans spend a greater share of their disposable income on tobacco, alcohol, and high-fat food than richer Americans.
Berkeley, Calif. was the first city in the nation to vote for a soda tax, with supporters arguing the higher price would cut consumption of sugary drinks and help tackle obesity. Sugar has become one of the biggest targets for the public health movement, with some activists claiming the industry is on a par with major tobacco companies. (RELATED: Berkeley’s Soda Tax Fail: Consumers Paying Less Than Half What Was Expected)
In July, claims that sugar represented the “new tobacco” were slammed as a myth in a paper by the U.K.’s Institute of Economic Affairs. The IEA report challenged the case for widespread government interference in consumer choices.
Authors Rob Lyons and Christopher Snowdon argued, “government intervention in the market can only be justified if there is a market failure and if government action will make a positive difference.” Based on this, IEA found the case of regulators and public health campaigners lacking.
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