What Makes Americans Increasingly Obese?

Grace Cardenas – Morning Period.

“More than one-third of U.S. adults have obesity” [1], and many leading causes of death in America are all obesity-related. Coincidentally, “in 2013, there were 232,611 establishments in the U.S. fast food industry.”[2] However, the problem is not the number of fast food restaurants, it’s the unhealthy food they serve.

A negative externality from serving unhealthy food is consumer weight gain. In fact, “in 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act that forbade consumers to sue fast-food operators over weight gain.”[3] If Americans know that consistently eating unhealthily leads to weight gain, why do they still choose to buy from chains that serve unhealthy food? The answer is relatively simple: “individuals seek to maximize their own utility” [4], or in other words, people will always do what they think will make them better off. If a person is trying to decide between driving through McDonald’s for a burger and stopping at the grocery store for a salad, the burger will win because the opportunity cost of getting the salad is too high. Charles Wheelan suggests in Naked Economics that “we may trade off utility now against utility in the future” [5], so while the burger may cost weight gain in the future, the inconvenience of walking into a grocery store to buy a salad is presently more displeasing.

American-Flag-Grilled-Burger-via-GrillJunkie

Burger Image [8]

Another reason why most Americans would choose the McDonald’s drive through is price. Why spend $15 on a salad when you can get a burger in less time and for a cheaper price? The production cost for a burger at McDonald’s is around 48 cents [6], but the production cost for healthy food is much higher because of the increased cost to procure quality ingredients and to prepare and serve the healthy food. Cost of production is a determinant of supply, and since the cost of production for heathy food is so much higher than unhealthy food, the price of healthy food is always higher.

So how can the market make unhealthy food less convenient and healthy foods more convenient thereby decreasing American obesity? The market actually “encourages individuals and firms to cut corners in ways that make society worse off as a result,” [7] so firms, acting to maximize their profits, are not incentivized to help the obesity problem. Therefore, government regulation is necessary. One solution is to tax unhealthy foods such as soda or burgers and also to give a subsidy to producers of healthy foods, causing the prices of healthy foods to fall and the prices of unhealthy foods to rise. Due to the Law of Demand, fewer people would prefer a burger if it was more expensive than a salad. This solution would lead to externalities such as decreasing obesity and less consumer spending on medical bills and weight loss programs. In addition, the solution would not financially burden the government because the tax on unhealthy food would pay for the subsidy on healthy food.

  1. “Adult Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 01, 2016. Accessed June 19, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html.
  2. Tucci, Courtney. “Fast food industry.” Statista. Accessed June 19, 2017. https://www.statista.com/topics/863/fast-food/.
  3. Bittman, Mark. “The True Cost of a Burger.” The New York Times. July 15, 2014. Accessed June 19, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/opinion/the-true-cost-of-a-burger.html?_r=0.
  4. Wheelan, Charles. “The Power of Markets: Who Feeds Paris?” In Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 6. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  5. Wheelan, Charles. “The Power of Markets: Who Feeds Paris?” In Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 9. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  6. Bittman, Mark. “The True Cost of a Burger.” The New York Times. July 15, 2014. Accessed June 19, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/opinion/the-true-cost-of-a-burger.html?_r=0.
  7. Wheelan, Charles. “Government and the Economy: Government is Your Friend” In Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 55. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  8. “Hamburger History: A Juicy Story.” Grill Junkie. Accessed June 19, 2017. http://grilljunkieguy.com/2013/12/.
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