Santa Clara University

Junk Food and Junk Science

No Single Cause or Quick Fix for the Obesity Problem

Professor Baker

In the past 20 years the percentage of Americans considered obese has nearly tripled, and media and celebrity interest has likewise grown. Since First Lady Michelle Obama made obesity a personal cause, the issue has been all over talk shows, magazine covers and op-ed pages.
    While the increased attention is not a bad thing, Dr. Gregory A. Baker, director of the Food and Agribusiness Institute at the Leavey School of Business, says that too much of the focus is mistakenly being placed on one cause: the consumption of so-called junk food or fast food.
    “The current generation of young Americans is increasingly overweight and will likely suffer from increased risk of many diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer,” Baker says. “That should make us uncomfortable, but to say that it’s all because of junk food sounds very simplistic, and we think it is.”
    Baker is co-author of a paper, “Of Junk Food and Junk Science,” that was published last year in International Food and Agribusiness Management Review. The paper looks at the obesity/junk food equation from a variety of perspectives and finds more passion and overstatement than good science.
    For starters, there’s the question of defining “junk food,” something that hasn’t been done properly and that’s hard to do, given that nearly all food has some nutritional value. Nevertheless, Baker put together an index of companies that most would consider as producing primarily junk food. Using available sales figures for these companies he and a colleague compiled almost 20 years of data on per capita spending on junk food and compared it to reported obesity rates.
    What they found with their statistical analysis was that the rise in obesity rates cannot be explained by junk food consumption. To take but one example, from 1996 to 2006, obesity rates increased by 49 percent, yet per capita spending on “junk food” during that period increased by roughly two percent. That came as no surprise to Baker.
    “What you’re eating at any given time does not determine your current weight,” he says. “Rather, your eating habits, combined with your exercise and other lifestyle choices will determine whether you’re gaining, losing, or maintaining weight. For example, someone who is obese could be dieting and exercising, and actually be in the process of losing weight.”
    Given the unquestioned seriousness of the obesity problem, Baker would like to see a solid, public policy approach to dealing with it, but he takes a dim view of the idea that it can be addressed primarily by initiatives that take aim at junk food.
    “This is not as simple as dealing with cigarettes, where you can tax them, restrict sales, and limit advertising,” he says. “Food is everywhere, and trying to regulate fast-food sales or tax sugary or fatty foods won’t solve the problem. It comes down to helping people make better choices, rather than regulating every place they buy food.”
    In the paper, Baker developed an equation to determine whether a causal link exists between junk food and obesity. When the numbers were plugged in, the link didn’t materialize. He says his hope is that future research will carry the idea forward and attempt to come up with an equation that factors in all the possible causes of obesity, and which could lead to the development of sounder public policy.
    “Our hope is that this paper will lead to future research that will address the complex connections between food choice, metabolism, physical activity and weight,” he says. “Quick fixes on issues as complicated as obesity are likely to be no more effective than fad diets.”

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