Obesity is a social problem. Addressing it requires access to healthy food, not restrictions

The path to a nanny state is paved with good intentions. According to local reports, the council in “the most obese area in Lancashire” is planning to place restrictions on takeaway food to control the health menace. While this isn’t a standalone measure — there is also talk of encouraging exercise and addressing mental health issues — it is of a piece with the notion that health and well-being stem primarily from the decisions individuals take — smokers get cancer, obese people diabetes and heart disease. Even sitting down — in sedentary jobs, people don’t have a choice — is seen as a culprit. Hence, every so often, people must be subject to anodyne phrases like “sitting is the new smoking” and before that, “sugar is the new smoking”.

Restricting fast-food perhaps isn’t a bad idea, particularly for young people amongst whom research indicates it is both a consequence of and cause for mental issues. But what do you replace it with? Kids having KFC and McDonald’s for multiple meals in the West are statistically more likely to belong to lower-income groups. In the West, it is more expensive and difficult to procure healthy produce than to walk down to the takeaway or order in.

Like most addictive substances, fast food targets the poor and vulnerable and the solution to it cannot just be restricting individual choice. Like most short-cuts in life, prohibition tends to backfire in the long run. What is more important is to ensure food habits and economies that do not make eating healthy a function of wealth, or something that requires intervention from the state. Obesity, like most public health issues, is a social problem. Tackling it requires expanding choice — especially the ability to make healthy ones — rather than restricting them.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 27, 2021 under the title ‘Fast food, shortcut’.

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