World Health Organization study shows need to regulate fast food industry

The convenience of fast food might not make up for the greater risk of obesity, according to a new study.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
The sign for McDonald's in Times Square is seen in New York July 23, 2015.

Fast food might be convenient, but it’s weighing eaters down in the long run, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers found that simply living near a fast food restaurant is linked to a 5.2 percent greater risk of obesity. Fast food has become so common-place that most children in North America are able to recognize McDonald’s before they even learn to speak, according to Partners for Your Health. In addition, 42 million children under age 5 were overweight or obese in 2013. WHO released a cross-national study in 2014 revealing the influence of market deregulation on fast food consumption and body mass index.

After conducting multivariate panel data analyses of 25 high income countries between the years 1999 and 2008, the WHO found that high-income countries with market-liberal welfare regimes had higher rates of obesity and easier access to fast food. The biggest increases in the average number of annual fast food transactions per capita were observed in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand - countries with less restrictive agricultural regulations. These results further enhance previous studies showing the connection between reduced rates of obesity and better protection of agricultural producers, more frequent price controls, and stricter government regulations.

According to Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, the study supports the implementation of policies that increase regulation of fast food companies. Such policies could include menu labeling, economic incentives for producers of fresh foods, taxes on ultra-processed foods and soft drinks, and more stringent rules for advertisements targeting children.

As a positive step forward, menu labeling of calories became law in the U.S. in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act. This law covered food in vending machines, amusement parks, certain prepared supermarket foods, and food establishments with 20 or more outlets.

However, the implementation deadline of these labeling requirements has been extended to December 1, 2016, because of the industry, trade, and other associations lobbying against the requirements, according to researcher, author, and James Beard Award-winner, Marion Nestle.

The leader of the WHO study, Roberto De Vogli of the University of California, Davis, says, “Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity.”

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