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Ireland is eating more fast food as waistlines continue to grow...and grow

The ‘invisible hand of the market’ promotes obesity worldwide, according to the Irish and American authors of a new global study.

Image: Fast Food via Shutterstock

IRELAND SAW THE third highest jump in fast food consumption over the past 15 years, according to a new Bulletin of the World Health Organisation study.

Out of 25 countries examined, Ireland was behind only Canada and Australia in terms of the increase in the average number of fast food transactions per capita.

The researchers, based in the US and Ireland, found that there was an jump of 12.3, which they corelate to a 0.4 rise in average BMI.

The study links the sharp inclines with deregulation, noting that the countries with the lowest increases (Italy, the Netherlands, Greece and Belgium) have more stringent market regulations.

According to the authors, governments could slow – or even reverse – the growing epidemic of obesity if they took measures to counter fast food consumption.

The study’s findings suggest that if lawmakers take action, “they can prevent overweight and obesity, which can have serious long-term health consequences including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer”.

Instead of looking at the density of outlets or asking people about their own dietary habits, the researchers looked at the number of transactions of fast food per capita from 1998 to 2008 in 25 high-income countries, comparing them to BMI figures.

The authors of the study found that while the average number of annual fast food transactions per capita increased from 26.61 to 32.76, average BMI increased from 25.8 to 26.4.

“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,” said lead author Dr Roberto De Vogli from the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis, in the United States.

The study focuses on high-income countries, but its findings are also relevant to developing countries as “virtually all nations have undergone a process of market deregulation and globalization – especially in the last three decades,” De Vogli added.

Types of food

As well as highlighting how widespread the problems of being overweight and obesity are, the authors also noted that the average calorie intake for a day was 3,437. This is compared to the between 2,000 and 2,500 recommendation.

That number, and the intake of animal fats, are only slightly changed compared to the late-1990s.

“This study shows how important public policies are for addressing the epidemic of obesity,” said Dr Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at WHO.

“Policies targeting food and nutrition are needed across several sectors including agriculture, industry, health, social welfare and education.

“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.”

Some of the suggested measures include:

  • economic incentives for growers to sell healthy and fresh foods;
  • economic disincentives for industries to sell fast and ultra-processed foods, as well as soft drinks.

The disincentives could include food taxes or a reduction of subsidies to growers and companies using corn for rapid tissue growth, excessive amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics.

The WHO also believes zoning polices to control the number and type of food outlets in any one area could be trialled, as well as tighter regulation of the advertising of certain foods to children.

There could also be trade regulations discouraging the importation and consumption of fast food, ultra-processed foods and soft drinks and more effective labelling systems.

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