Why Don’t Presidential Candidates Want To Talk About Obesity?

Do robots dream of subsidized corn?

Running for president of the United States certainly has its advantages. Your job is to travel the country kissing babies and sampling indigenous food and beverage. You get to be on television more than all the Kardashians combined. And last, but not least, you are uniquely positioned to focus substantial national attention on the specific issues that you and your political party believe are critical for the present and future health of your country.

Any candidate’s selection of the key issues on which they will build their campaign is also a function of current events. The crippling global recession that began in 2008 dictated that the 2012 presidential campaign would be focused on the economic health of the US. With twelve million Americans unemployed as of September 2012, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney need polls to tell them that the man with the most credible plan for stimulating economic growth will win the election (although that is exactly what they indicate). However, the wonkish focus of the campaign on creating domestic jobs has led to a substantial public health ramification of the economic downturn being omitted from the political discourse: the increasing risk for obesity.

Both presidential candidates have failed to recognize that an individual’s socioeconomic status is strongly associated with that person’s risk for obesity. Individuals with a low socioeconomic status bear a disproportionate risk of becoming obese. There are many possible explanations for this correlation such as a lack of nutritional education in poor areas or persistent cultural food traditions, but the most compelling explanation is based on a combination of economics and predictable human decision making mechanisms. When faced with severely constrained income, people optimize by purchasing foods based on a strong preference for satiation (the feeling of being full) and palatability (tastes good) over any consideration of a food item’s nutritional content. (See this paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for more information.)

A study has indicated that the number of unemployed Americans is positively correlated with the number of Americans who participate in the federal supplemental nutritional assistance program (SNAP). Commonly known as the food stamps program, SNAP provides financial assistance for purchasing food to low income people living in the US. According to census data, in 2010, 40.3 million Americans received assistance from SNAP, which is considerable increase from 26.3 million who received assistance just three years before. The average SNAP participant only has $133.79 per month available to be spent on food, compared to the $215.26 the average American spent on food per month in 2010.

As mentioned earlier, people with severely limited income, such Americans who rely on SNAP, make food consumption decisions based primarily on satiation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. This human tendency becomes problem when the cheapest food items are unhealthy, high-fat, calorie-dense processed foods. The reason these foods are so relatively inexpensive is that they are composed of corn products that are artificially cheap due to large government subsidies to corn producers. The corn subsidies, which total approximately $5 billion annually, skew food prices and help to make a bag of Doritos (which is both filling and delicious) less expensive than a bag of spinach (which is clearly healthier). These altered prices distort the economic environment of low income people and lead them to consume diets that exacerbate the risk of obesity.

Thus, the missing ingredient in the 2012 campaign is an open recognition of the nexus between the federal corn subsidies, economic distress and obesity. As of now, the candidates have only been interested in talking about obesity in the context of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and determining who will foot the healthcare bills associated with the disease. This approach ignores that the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic must be treated in addition to the negative health effects. A prescient presidential candidate must acknowledge that, even if they are capable of restoring the economy to its former glory, the long recession will have increased the incidence of obesity as approximately one sixth of the population will have spent some time in poverty. Any ameliorative effort must recognize the perverse effect of corn subsidies on SNAP recipients and should seek to promote public health via reform that results in competitively priced healthy food options.

9 Comments

  1. Jacob, I love the reference to the Kardashians. I find your topic very interesting, and am happy that you talk about the strong correlation of socioeconomic class with obesity, as well as decision making mechanisms. I have never thought too extensively on this topic; however, I have always assumed it was because fast food from McDonald’s and Wendy’s was simply cheaper than that of a Whole Foods. The numbers you provide from SNAP are espiecally alarming, as I have never considered the large gap between the average American and a participant of SNAP. After reading your post, I am curious to see not only which candidate is elected today, but also whether or not SNAP is included in their upcoming plans. Obesity is clearly a huge issue for this country, and my hope is that the newly elected President does something about it.

  2. Making healthy foods cheaper, or cheap corn-based foods more expensive, would be a huge step in takeling the nations health issues (I dont want to say “obesity issues” because we have many health issues that dont just correlate to being overweight). Like many unrelated issues, its going to be hard to make people change their eating habits willingly, so if we make healthy eating options more economically viable we may see change. Just like setting fuel economy standards or handing out subsidies for green energy use, maybe removing corn subsidies to make healthy foods more cost effective could work, but I think we have to worry about the unintended consequences here. No matter how unhealthy the food you are eating is, it is probably more healthy than not eating. Though compared to other nations we have a relatively low number of people going hungry regularly, increasing costs (which is what removing these subsidies would do) of corn-based foods could push many of the cheapest foods out of reach for some households.

  3. We definitely need to have a more expansive outlook on the factors leading to problems like obesity. Corn subsidies, which in were originally placed to support small farmers during the Great Depression, now are exploited by large commercial farms to make high profits. Its nonsensical that we essentially spend billions in federal money to help large agricultural industries profit who contribute to increasing the burden from obesity. And health cost of obesity could be substantial reduced if we took measures to removing corn subsidies.

    Interestingly, subsidizing corn also hurts food security by reducing the diversity in crops, which would make crops more resilient during harsh weather.

  4. Not only is the subsidy on corn fueling American obesity, it has adverse effects on the environment as well. Corn is very susceptible to drought, and with global climate change increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, this is becoming an even more pressing issue. What the situation with corn subsidies highlights is that we cannot rely solely on economics to solve our environmental problems. The “invisible hand” cannot be expected to regulate the environment. While there is a two-fold advantage when the most environmentally friendly option or policy is also the most economical, this is often not the case. This is well demonstrated in McKinsey & Company’s abatement cost curve, which plots cost vs. CO2 equivalent emissions. For any emissions reduction technique that has a negative cost on the McKinsey curve, we should already be implementing that technique because it will save both money and emissions as compared with “business as usual.” However, whenever the cost is positive, then we have to pay a little more to benefit the environment.

  5. I think you are right that getting rid of corn subsidies is a crucial policy change that needs to happen in order to help Americans prioritize their food options better. However, I do not think that the American government or presidential candidates are completely to blame. No one can force anyone to eat healthy. I don’t think that you can blame my choice to eat a whole pizza or pint of ice cream on the presidential candidates. And yes, while healthy food options are cheaper, the large majority of Americans are not choosing these foods to feel full, but based on their desire to satisfy their cravings. People have to act themselves to alter their cravings and food purchases in order to be healthier. It is a decision that every American makes for every meal. Just cutting soda out of your diet can save the average American 5 lbs. annually. Drinking water as opposed to soda will save Americans money, but they choose to drink soda anyways. We need to place financial incentives such as taxes on sugary drinks and junk foods if we really want Americans to slowly change their behavior. Not blame the presidential candidates for not being considered with obesity.

  6. I’m really glad that you wrote your blog about this because it is an issue that really needs to be addressed. Obesity is such a serious problem nowadays, but our government is not focusing enough attention to it. You mention that lower income individuals are more susceptible to obesity because they either don’t have the education or don’t have the necessary funds to lead more nutritious lifestyles. I think this is absolutely true. Processed, fast-food is much more inexpensive than healthier alternatives, which makes it a “good” choice for poor families. Besides, when you’re working several jobs and have to take care of your kids, it is a lot easier to buy fast-food than to cook a healthy meal. Therefore, the government needs to find innovative ways of changing this trend and ensuring that even low-income families have access to nutritious food.

  7. This is an important topic that like you and others who have left responses said goes largely ignored by politicians. However, accessing affordable AND healthy food is major struggle for American families especially after the recent economic downturn. Our country’s leaders must recognize and express to the public the effects that subsidies on corn has on SNAP recipients’ food choices. While people are going to eat whatever they want to eat, healthy food that is unaffordable is off limits to some, thus poorer people do not have the luxury to eat healthy all the time even if they wanted to. Besides addressing the issue of corn subsidies on food choices, we must recognize the effects of these subsidies on overall food security. As corn continues to be grown, the growing of other crops declines since farmers are unable to make comparable profits with other crops. This results in the rising food prices and increases in food imports. Another reason to address the corn subsidies issue is in regards to energy production. Currently, corn subsidies are strongly supporting ethanol production while hindering the development of the renewable energy market.

    The government must address the obesity epidemic NOW not just by figuring out a way to provide healthcare for our citizens as a reactionary measure but also by taking a precautionary approach by making nutritious food accessible to all Americans regardless of economic status.

  8. Preach! Your insight into how misguided corn subsidies are fueling the obesity epidemic was both refreshing and poignant. I have never before considered the issue to be one concerning environmental justice, but you manage to tie the pieces together in a fluid and coherent manner.

    I spent my summer in Sweden where less than 7% of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to 15% of the population here in the United States. It is no surprise then, by your analysis, that only 9.7% of Swedish adults are considered to be obese relative to the 30% of adults here in America. Thinking back to my experience, I remember being shocked by the high prices of fast food in Sweden and simply writing them off as characteristic of the nation’s high cost of living (a combo meal would cost you $10). Yet the corn subsidies we allow here are non-existent in Sweden, and I’d be curious to see further correlative studies.

    However, I subscribe to the belief that before obesity can be tackled via the national political agenda, we need to find means of bridging the wide income gap and alleviating millions of Americans out of poverty. While I am not saying that our government should go as far as to replicate the Swedish socialist economy, I do think our priority should be on bolstering the economy so that people have the means to make healthier choices for themselves. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Campaign” is working wonders in tackling childhood obesity, and I am just fine with allowing the First Lady to handle the issue before it takes center stage in Congress.

  9. I agree that corn subsidies allow many cheaper foodstuffs to undermine healthier options but even without these subsidies other artificial substances can come to take its place. The satiation idea that you mentioned is definitely a reality and I think that the neglect from presidential candidates all comes down to image. Having a president stand around cancer patients and talk about helping the sick is seen as noble. Obesity is defined as a disease, but if candidates were to take pictures with patients suffering from obesity it would not have the same effect. This is because not everyone understands situations and dispositions that can lead one to become obese. Health is a less sensitive topic than weight is, so candidates lump the obesity in with other things and attack the issue from that end instead of the consumption side, but the unhealthy food is the problem. Not having enough to eat also slows down the metabolism so that when people do end up eating, their body stores it for a longer amount of time because it does not know when the next dose of sustenance will come. I think that the topic need to be addressed by the root of the problem, which—in most cases—is lack of funds and time to buy and prepare healthier food options.

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