By: Hillel Mazansky, M.D., M. PRAX Med, M.R.C.G.P.
Whether intentional or not, the food industry has created a market for cheap, addictive, unhealthy foods.
Much of the shelf space in American markets, especially small inner-city ones, is dominated by high-sugar, low nutrition foods. The demand for these unhealthy foods has pushed up the costs for healthy foods, further compounding the problem.
For many children and adolescents, these are the only foods their family can afford, and they are obese as a result. Childhood obesity can be traced back to a cycle of perverse incentives that will harm our nation unless serious steps are taken to deal with the problem.
Dr. Mazansky believes that these efforts must start with individual parents and children making changes in their nutrition intake.
Perverse Incentives in the Food Industry: Americans typically prefer to base their diets around inexpensive foods that can be purchased year-round. Only baked goods and meats really fit in this category-all other foods are seasonal by nature, and they must be expensively imported when out of season. This has led the food industry to focus on meats and baked goods that, because of the constant supply, can be sold at relatively low costs.
Healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables can vary widely in cost throughout the year and are often too expensive for the poorest Americans even when in season.
The costs of baked goods can be decreased still further by making them in greater volumes, and the costs of high-fat meats are lower than low-fat meats. High sugar baked goods are addictive, and so they sell in the greater volumes which lower their costs. High-fat meats can also be additive to those accustomed to their taste. Therefore, many poor Americans-and particularly children-have diets dominated by high-fat hamburgers, high-sugar pastries, and other similar foods.
Perverse Incentives in our Lifestyle: Besides being cheap, unhealthy high-fat and high-sugar foods are also readily available with no preparation time. Many Americans spend very little time cooking, either by choice or because their lifestyles don't permit them the time to cook. Poor Americans can spend a few dollars to get ready-made high-fat and high-sugar foods with only a few minutes of lost time.
Americans who can afford to get ready-made healthy foods regularly, and even then they often must wait half an hour for the food-a significant opportunity cost for a businessman.
In previous generations, much of what Americans ate was prepared from scratch at home. Childhood obesity was very rare when most meals were home-cooked and children spent much of their time outdoors.
Rising costs of living have led to higher work hours and more dual-income families. Thus, many families lack the time for home-prepared meals.
In addition, many made-from-scratch recipes were healthy only for those with active lifestyles, such as farmers.
An increasing number of American jobs are sedentary in nature, to the extent that even many home-cooked recipes would be too fattening for these office-job workers.
How to Begin to Make Changes: Parents can take steps now to help their children and combat the perverse incentives we have discussed if they take the time to prepare healthier foods, encourage exercise, and work on building your child's mental health.
By setting a strict diet and exercise routine for physical health and using guided imagery for mental health and well-being, your child will grow into a healthy, happy adult.
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