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Free Market Economy

How the government is fueling the obesity epidemic

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Americans are famous for their poor diets. We eat far too much high-fructose corn syrup, overly processed foods, and one of our most iconic corporations, McDonald’s, is the poster-child for junk food.

I was no exception as a child. My diet consisted of macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, pizza, ice cream, potato chips, and little else. 

And of course, McDonald’s.

But, like so many Americans, I didn’t want anything to do with lettuce, pickles, and onions, so I ordered plain cheeseburgers: bun, meat, and cheese; they came with a Coke, naturally. 

I was young and didn’t know any better. That was part of it. But another part of it was that my mom worked long hours, trying to provide for me and my brother on her own, so she wasn’t around to cook meals for us; nor did she have a ton of money to spend at the grocery store.

This led to a lot of fast food. But why are unhealthy foods so cheap? If they’re bad for us, shouldn’t they be in lower demand, and therefore in lower supply, and therefore not cheap?

On one hand, we didn’t know how bad sugar can be for us. On another hand, cake, Oreos, and fried chicken downright taste good. No doubt about it. 

But there’s another, more sinister reason there’s such overlap between unhealthy food and cheap food: government subsidies.

Any good economist can tell you that people respond to incentives. In some ways, that’s all you need to know about economics. We know, for example, a regulation that makes businesses install charging stations for electric vehicles is likely, all else being equal, to lead to fewer people starting businesses.

If you subsidize it, you get more of it.

And government subsidies of the ingredients that are the hallmarks of junk food — corn, wheat, soy, and sugar, in various forms and under various names — are nudging Americans toward junk food.

And why do we subsidize these awful foods? Because lobbyists grow filthy rich from them. Add in the negative health effects and environmental degradation, and we have a perverse system that rewards well-connected people that use government to make us less healthy and live in a more polluted society. 

With the disclaimer that health is different for everyone, and that every human body reacts differently to different inputs, this much is safe to say: because we’re being nudged subconsciously toward them, it’s worth paying extra attention to, and doing extra research on, crops and foods government subsidizes.

The good news is that the resources are out there. The Internet’s prevalence and new technological developments like continuous glucose monitors, previously reserved for diabetics, have made it easier for people to get health information — individualized health information. 

While there’s no shortage of fad diets and bad science out there, people are increasingly able to experiment for themselves and see what foods make them feel good and are likely to keep them healthy. That’s a win for everyone, especially because we might not want to bank on social security for the long haul.

The fact that bad options exist isn’t a bad thing. It’s the tradeoff for having a plethora of options in this developed and prosperous world.

This is why it’s so important to do your own research as a savvy consumer.

However, let’s make no mistake; when you subsidize something, you get more of it, and it’s irresponsible to have government use taxpayer money, YOUR money, to make unhealthy food all the more tantalizing.

For more context on how government policies contribute to obesity, see our Learn Liberty video below:

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