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Published October 08, 2012, 11:39 AM

2 approaches to obesity epidemic

There is little doubt that the U.S. is facing an obesity epidemic.

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood Schaffer, Agweek

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There is little doubt that the U.S. is facing an obesity epidemic.

In 1961, the average person in the U.S. consumed 2,881 kilocalories a day. Of that amount, just under two-thirds, 1,871 kilocalories, came from vegetables and 1,010 kilocalories came from animal products.

By 2009, the daily per-capita consumption of food had jumped to 3,688 kilocalories, an increase of 807 kilocalories. And 804 of those calories came from vegetal products, mostly vegetable oils and sugars.

The result of this increase in the daily per-capita consumption of food in the U.S. has been a significant increase in the number and proportion of people who are classified as obese or morbidly obese. Tragically, this involves children as well as adults.

Health experts long have warned that obesity is accompanied by increased health problems, particularly an increase in the incidence of diabetes.

Sugary drinks

One approach to this epidemic is exemplified by the recent decision by the city of New York to ban certain sugary drinks in sizes above 16 ounces. The exemplar of the drink that is being banned is one that is attractive to youth, a 32-ounce fountain sugar sweetened soda that contains about 430 empty calories.

There is nothing in the law to prevent kids, or adults, from purchasing two 16-ounce drinks, but to the extent that does not happen, proponents of the law can argue that the ban on large drinks is having a beneficial impact. On the other hand, if consumers buy twice as many of these 16-ounce drinks, the law will have been an exercise in futility.

Calorie count

The other approach is the one recently announced by McDonald’s, and it’s expected to be followed by their competitors.

The McDonald’s approach is to include the calorie count — along with other nutrition components such as sodium — on the menu board. Some of those calories are provided by oils that are used to deep fry everything from French fries to chicken nuggets. This approach is consistent with economic theory that holds for full transparency between buyer and seller — in this case providing the consumer with more information at the time of sale.

To the extent the consumer chooses to use this information to purchase lower calorie meals, this approach will contribute to a decrease in the obese portion of the population.

Which approach is better? The jury still is out.

What is clear is that the U.S. is facing a crisis in health care that is, in part, brought on by a 28 percent increase in the daily per capita consumption of food since 1961 and we need to continue to experiment with ways to bring those numbers down to a more healthy level.

Editor’s Note: Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy in the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and is director of the university’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.