This New York Times Magazine article does an excellent job of exposing how farm subsidies have contributed to obesity amongst Americans, and particularly amongst America’s poor.
In a nutshell, by subsidizing the overproduction of corn, soybean, and wheat, the American government drives the cost of these staples down, which in turn encourages overconsumption. All the extra caloric energy produced by America’s subsidized farmers gets translated into Twinkies, candy, potato chips, and myriad other junk – junk that interestingly offers far more calories per dollar than more healthy foods. The junk food fits perfectly into a low-income budget, which helps explain the paradoxical poverty-obesity correlation in the US.
The sad fact is that the American farm lobby fleeces the American taxpayer two ways: first, in the $30 Billion a year in subsidies they receive, and second, in the $30 Billion more that Medicare and Medicaid spend treating weight-related diseases.
Clearly not all weight problems are related to market distortions between the relative costs of healthy and unhealthy foods. I mean, just because a Snickers and a Kit Kat combine for the same caloric value as a typical lunch doesn’t mean that I will make them my typical lunch. But obesity does not overtake a person overnight. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that he who eats more than he expends, gets fat. Consuming 100 extra calories per day (less than one Coke) for a year will add 10 pounds to the average person’s waistline. And if Cheetos-calories are half the price of apple-calories, doesn’t that make it just a little more tempting?
The $30 Billion number for government spending to treat obesity is now out-of-date, as the aforementioned CDC study was conducted in 1998. If obesity trends are any indication, the number is now double that and rising fast.
One small consolation in all this: if you notice one day you’re carrying a couple more pounds, this time, you really can blame the government.