Obesity is a severe public health problem all over the world, especially in developed countries such as the United States and Canada. It has long been an established fact that obesity causes numerous negative health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. The epidemic imposes a huge burden on the healthcare system and it is crucial to tackle the problem from its roots and mitigate the harmful effects.  

Studies have concluded that the most significant root cause for the worsening obesity crisis is an increase in calorie intake coupled with lack of adequate physical activity. In the United States, among the entire population from 1985 through 2002, there was an increase of per capita calorie intake by more than 300 kilocalories [1]. Over the past decade, the glut is only getting worse.

Besides genetic and metabolic factors, body weight is most affected by food choices since they determine a person’s energy intake. With large portion sizes and high energy density, fast foods can lead to excess intake of calories, sharply increasing the risk of obesity. Making matters worse, fast foods often affect children and youth much more than adults. The fast food industry often takes children and youth as the targeted customers in their promotion campaigns, tirelessly cultivating sustained consumption patterns among them.  Children with the habit of eating out in fast food restaurants will oftentimes not be able to keep a balanced energy intake. Studies found that a sustained excess energy imbalance intake of approximately 2% leads to obesity over time. [1] For an average individual, a 2% imbalance could mean an excess of merely 30 kilocalories per day. To put it into perspective, a can of soda contains well more than 100 kilocalories. Even a chocolate cookie packs more than 30 kilocalories. 

To tackle the pressing obesity-caused public health crisis, governments are trying to make new rules and laws to regulate the fast food industry and guide people to healthier eating habits. Canada has experienced a fast rise of fast food consumption. Thus various levels of governments have looked intensely into regulatory measures to keep the problem under control. Ontario turned out to be the first province to legislate menu labelling requirements by enacting the Healthy Menu Choice Act (HMCA), which required restaurants to display caloric information for any food or drink item starting from January 1, 2017. [2]

The aim of HMCA is to encourage restaurants to put more focus on healthier, low-calorie options. If food service providers are forced to demonstrate transparency as far as caloric information is concerned, customers tend to make informed choices and choose healthier options while dining out. HMCA also helps with Ontario’s Healthy Kids Strategy to prevent and reduce childhood obesity. 

However, there are disputes on the real impact of the act. Although people tend to agree that the enactment of HMCA was done with good intent and purpose, some critics concentrate on the effectiveness of using caloric labelling as the sole measure. They argue that consumption patterns won’t change much without stronger measures. 

In principle, I agree that the HMCA was a step in the right direction. But I do think that caloric labelling is far too weak a measure to incur real meaningful changes. The implicit assumption behind labelling is that the major accountability for healthy eating falls squarely on consumers. The reality is that the role of the food industry plays no small part in affecting people’s food choices. 

The fast food restaurants actually spend billions of dollars a year to entice customers to eat at their places. So much money and resources deployed by the industry are very powerful and effective. People will need utmost self-control to put more weight on reading caloric labels than being persuaded by the bombarding marketing campaigns. For example, marketing campaigns with toys being offered are very attractive to children. Children don’t care about the fact that meals coming with the toys are high in fat, salt, and calories, but low in essential nutrients. But parents usually yield to their kids and take them out to eat fast food for the toys anyway. Similar marketing tools include packaging with famous cartoon characters or endorsing celebrities favored by people. 

Based on the facts mentioned above, the natural conclusion is that strong regulations need to be adopted to discipline the industry in terms of marketing and promotions. There have been calls for that all along, but it is very hard to enact regulatory measures to constrain the industry. The lobbying groups for the food industry have been very successful in painting such regulations as anti-free-market, which virtually killed the idea. But I think governments should have courage to do the right things, no matter how controversial it could look. Government interference in a lot of things is not desirable and should not be a norm in society.  Public health, however,  is an exception, since for-profit private sectors rarely put public interest in front of self-interest voluntarily. In my view, governments should try to enact regulations to discourage the industry from excessive marketing campaigns. For instance, a cap on marketing spending or special tax could be considered. The marketing venues and channels can also be limited to reduce the efforts of fast food restaurants to reach children and youth. 

In conclusion, more effective regulatory measures to mitigate the obesity-caused public health crisis is crucial. It is about time we demand bold action from the government.


[1] https://www.news-medical.net/health/Obesity-and-Fast-Food.aspx

[2] https://ckphu.com/2017/01/menu-labelling-ontario/