A team of international scientists has proposed that governments of the world address a root cause of the obesity epidemic: the deregulation of agricultural and related industries.

In a study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO), Irish and American investigators analyzed the effects of economic deregulation on individual decisions leading to weight gain and obesity, which in turn may lead to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. They analyzed data on fast food transactions per capita from 1999 to 2008 in 25 richer countries, along with data on body mass index (BMI).

As the average number of fast food transactions rose in those countries throughout the decade, people became fatter — with an average BMI increasing from 25.8, or just a bit overweight, to 26.4, closer to an obese rating of 30.

"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," lead investigator Roberto De Vogli, of the University of California at Davis, said in statement. In recent years, “virtually all nations have undergone a process of market deregulation and globalization — especially in the last three decades,” he added.

The biggest jumps in obesity occurred in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, whose economies had deregulated the most. The lowest increases in obesity were seen in Italy, Greece, Belgium, and the Netherlands, all countries with more stringent market regulation — though the economic story of the “PIG” [Portugal, Italy, and Greece] countries of Southern Europe remains far more complex.

Tellingly, the obesity rate in countries studied rose sharply while the overall consumption of calories, including those from animal fat, rose only slightly, according to Francesco Branca, who directs WHO’s department of nutrition for health and development. "Policies targeting food and nutrition are needed across several sectors including agriculture, industry, health, social welfare, and education," Branca 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."

Branca and his colleagues suggest governments consider some of the following measures:

  • economic incentives for growers to sell healthy foods and fresh food items rather than ultra-processed foods and subsidies to grow fruit and vegetables;

  • economic disincentives for industries to sell fast food, ultra-processed foods, and soft drinks such as an ultra-processed food tax and/or the reduction or elimination of subsidies to growers/companies using corn for rapid tissue growth, excessive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, and antibiotics;

  • zoning policies to control the number and type of food outlets;

  • tighter regulation of the advertising of fast food and soft drinks, especially to children;

  • trade regulations discouraging the importation and consumption of fast food, ultra-processed foods, and soft drinks; and

  • more effective labelling systems especially for ultra-processed foods, including fast food and soft drinks.