Junk Metal Blues

Junk Food, Junk Diets, and Junk Policy for Obesity

A series of reviews in the International Journal of Obesity raises fundamental questions about policies to address obesity. How meaningful is the ever popular idea of junk food? Shouldn’t we instead be concerned about junk diets? Are economic strategies for addressing obesity likely to have a measurable effect? Are we damaging public trust by relying on junk policy that sounds good but lacks an adequate scientific foundation?

In one way or another, many policies related to obesity target junk food. Gregorio Milani and colleagues point out that definitions for junk food are inconsistent at best. The U.S. FDA concedes that they have have no definition for it. The agency is still struggling to come up with a good definition for food that can be called “healthy.” The European Food Safety Agency has nothing. WHO has a definition, but it is so broad that it sweeps in foods that have long been part of healthy regional diets.

Is smoked salmon junk food? Its fat and salt content might meet the WHO definition. Is a rich meal at an expensive restaurant junk food? Or are we more comfortable calling a cheap meal at McDonald’s junk food? Milani concludes:

Each food can be just a player in the field of unhealthy nutrition. No single category of food can be identified as the main guilty factor. Consequently, in addressing obesity and obesity-related diseases, we think that the term “junk food” is likely to be pointless, and should be replaced by the concept of “junk dietary pattern,” to be considered along with individual genetics and lifestyle.

Jayson Lusk reviews the economic justification for popular obesity related policies and finds them lacking. In his review, he notes that “farm subsidies have little effect on obesity prevalence.” He examines proposals for targeting recipients of food assistance. Evidence for an effect on obesity prevalence is inadequate. Taxing food deemed to be unhealthy might cause more harm than benefit to consumers. He concludes:

Many of the same factors that make obesity such a complicated and multifaceted issue extend to the economic analysis of public health policies.

Martin Binks and Shao-Hua Chin examine the challenges for developing effective health policies to address obesity. They argue that simplistic and narrow solutions for reducing obesity are destined to be unsuccessful. They say:

The challenge faced is one involving the willingness to objectively evaluate the science (even when it opposes strongly held ideological beliefs), and to pursue comprehensive evidence-based solutions to obesity and the policies that may support them.

Perhaps the time has come to reconsider entrenched ideology regarding obesity. Clearly this complex problem is not yielding to simplistic policy prescriptions.

Click here for the paper by Milani et al, here for the paper by Lusk, and here for the paper by Binks and Chin.

Junk Metal Blues, photograph © Sten Dueland / flickr

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January 25, 2017