With the majority of the population considered to be overweight, should the government step in to help make healthy eating easier?
Despite the best intentions of public health programs, and an endless supply of best-selling diet books, the nation’s collective waistline continues to expand. It seems personal willpower may not be enough – so is it time for the government to take decisive action?
What’s behind the rising obesity levels in Australia?
At its heart, overeating and underactivity are indisputably the cause of weight gain. Yet these factors are attributable to a complex combination of genetics, environmental factors and psychological reasons.
While food marketing and television viewing attracts the most negative attention, lack of sleep, endocrine disorders and the increased use of medications can all contribute to weight gain. Changes in the age and ethnic diversity of the population, rising maternal age, nutrition during pregnancy, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles are also factors in obesity.
With so many factors conspiring to derail even the most concerted weight-loss effort, simplistic solutions that point the blame at just one element will do little to address the problem. Furthermore, while dieting and individual responsibility can work for a single person, it does not work across the whole population.
How can the government help?
The government has no qualms with taxing alcohol and tobacco, yet baulks at the idea of similarly taxing junk food. Healthy food choices could be made both cheap and easy by subsidising healthy foods at the expense of foods high in fat and sugar. Restricting the sale of foods of dubious nutritional quality in schools, combined with significant curbing of the promotion of these foods to children, should also be a strongly considered option.
The introduction of consumer-friendly food labelling, such as the ‘traffic light’ guide now promoted in the UK, is a great example of how to give people an easy-to interpret guide to the nutritional merits of a packaged food. Our current system presents this information in a form that only the lighly nutritionally literate can understand. Australian research has shown that consumers find the ‘traffic light’ labelling far friendlier and more useful in helping to make healthier food choices than the percentage daily intake system currently being used in the food industry.
The bottom line
Individual resolve, along with government leadership, will go a long way towards addressing the long-term health of Australians.