Study Reveals Possible Link Between Fat, Fast Food in Wealthy Nations

<p>Researchers said countries that have imposed strict market regulations were associated with the lowest increases in transactions per capita among the nations studied.</p>

GenevaAuthors of a study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization have found a possible correlation between rising fast food consumption and expanding wastelines.

Researchers analyzed fast food purchases per capita from 1999 to 2008 in 25 affluent countries and compared them with figures on body mass index (BMI), an indicator of fat.

Everywhere, the average number of fast food purchases rose, although researchers reported significant differences among the nations. Perhaps more telling, average BMI grew from 25.8 to 26.4 according to a press release issued by the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that an adult with a BMI of between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight while a BMI of 30 is associated with obesity. 

Canada led the fast food binge with an additional 16.6 transactions per capita, followed by Australia (14.7), Ireland (12.3) and New Zealand (10.1), the study found. Researchers said countries that have imposed strict market regulations were associated with the lowest increases in transactions per capita among the nations studied. Italy had the smallest growth (1.5), followed by the Netherlands (1.8), Greece (1.9) and Belgium (2.1).

In the United States, the number of fast food purchases increased from 104.4 in 1999 to 113.1 in 2008 while purchases in Canada rose from 109.5 to 126.1. Meanwhile, BMI in the United States increased from 27.5 to 28.3 while BMI in Canada rose from 26.4 to 27.

Such transactions may include a purchase of several fast food items on behalf of numerous individuals. Researchers calculated the number of fast food purchases based on information from secondary statistical data sources such as governments and international organization, store checks and trade interviews with distributors, manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers.

According to a Gallup-Healthways index, from Jan. 1 through Oct. 28, 2013, the obesity rate in the United States rose to 27.2% from 26.2.% in the prior year.  

"Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity," Dr. Roberto De Vogli, lead author of the study with the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization, stressed the importance of public policies in addressing obesity.

"Policies targeting food and nutrition are needed across several sectors including agriculture, industry, health, social welfare and education," Branca said. "Countries where the diet is transitioning from one that is high in cereals to one that is high in fat, sugar and processed foods need to take action to align the food supply with the health needs of the population."

Several countries in Europe show little appetite for fast food compared to North America. For instance, in 2008, Belgium and Italy each had 12.8 purchases, according to the study. Hungary had only 12.3 purchases in 2008, up from 6.3 in 1999.

"When considering different countries, our study clearly showed that, although all countries have experienced increases in fast food consumption and BMI, nations that slowly and minimally deregulated their economies have experienced slower increases in both," researchers stated in a Q&A on the study.

Researchers indicated that aggressive marketing is another factor contributing to rising fast food consumption. For instance, they cited a 2005 study that found 96% of schoolchildren could identify Ronald McDonald, the second most recognizable fictional character behind Santa Claus.

McDonalds, which has more than 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the obesity study. 

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