LONDON Feb 3 Governments could slow or even
reverse the growing obesity epidemic if they introduced more
regulation into the global market for fast foods such as
burgers, chips and fizzy drinks, researchers said on Monday.
A study published in the Bulletin of the World Health
Organisation (WHO) suggested that if governments took firmer
action, they could start to prevent people becoming overweight
and obese - conditions with serious long-term consequences such
as diabetes, heart diseases and cancer.
"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," said Roberto De Vogli of the
University of California, Davis, in the United States, who led
The WHO is urging governments to do more to try to prevent
obesity happening in the first place, rather than risking the
high human and economic costs when it does.
Suggested policies include economic incentives for growers
to sell healthy, fresh foods; disincentives for industries to
sell ultra-processed foods and soft drinks; cutting subsidies to
growers and companies who use large amounts of fertilisers,
pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics; and tighter regulation of
fast-food advertising, especially to children.
The research analysed the effect on obesity of deregulation
in the economy over time, including in the agriculture and food
sectors, and the resulting increase in so-called "fast food
transactions" - in other words, the number of times people
bought fast food.
The researchers compared the number of fast food
transactions with body mass index (BMI) in 25 high-income
countries between 1999 and 2008.
They found that, as the average number of annual fast food
transactions increased from 26.61 to 32.76 per person, average
BMI increased from 25.8 to 26.4.
Someone with a BMI of 25 or more is overweight, while a BMI
of 30 or more is considered obese.
Vogli said that, while the research was based on data from
wealthy countries, its findings were also relevant to developing
"Virtually all nations have undergone a process of market
deregulation and globalisation - especially in the last three
decades," he said.
The average number of fast food transactions per person
increased in all 25 countries. The sharpest gains were in
Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, while the lowest
were in countries with more stringent market regulation - such
as Italy, the Netherlands, Greece and Belgium.
Francesco Branca, director of the WHO's Department of
Nutrition for Health and Development, said the findings showed
how important public policies were in addressing obesity.
"Policies targeting food and nutrition are needed across
several sectors including agriculture, industry, health, social
welfare and education," he said.
"Countries where the diet is transitioning from one that is
high in cereals to one that is high in fat, sugar and processed
foods need to take action to align the food supply with the
health needs of the population."
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Kevin Liffey)