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Do we need more government control to curb the obesity crisis? Add to ...

Poor diets are responsible for more deaths than car accidents or gun violence, yet most people ignore this urgent public health crisis. For that reason, New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman argues, we need the equivalent of “dietary seat belts.”

In a piece this week that is gaining traction online, Bittman makes the case for greater controls over the food supply to prevent overconsumption of sugary drinks and processed food products that are high in salt, fat and calories.

Cue the critics who will say Bittman is calling for the creation of a nanny state and that individuals should have the freedom to make their own choices about their diets.

But he makes an interesting argument for why restrictions on the types of food and the quantity that is available are not only important, but necessary.

Consider how many lives are saved by public health initiatives such as seat belts and vaccinations. Then consider that the majority of adults in countries such as Canada are overweight or obese, while the same is true for about 30 per cent of children in this country.

Carrying excess weight increases a person’s risk for numerous health problems, from high blood pressure to diabetes to cardiovascular problems. Heart disease and stroke are among the leading killers in Canada, but as public health experts have pointed out, many of those deaths are premature. Countless lives could be saved if the rates of obesity went down and more people adopted healthier lifestyles.

It seems that most people won’t clean up their act on their own, so Bittman argues for dietary seat belts in the form of taxes on junk food, bans on excessively large soda containers and restrictions on junk food and deep fryers in schools.

Although these types of plans have been garnering increasing attention in recent years, not all obesity experts are on board. Arya Sharma, a leading Canadian obesity researcher, has argued many times that soda taxes or similar moves won’t result in any significant population-wide reduction in weight.

Instead of focusing on “bad” foods and beverages, experts such as Sharma say what’s really needed is a broad approach that makes it easier for people to walk every day, for children to have ample physical activity and for people to have access to fresh, healthy food.

The solution to the obesity crisis lies in truly understanding what is driving rates upward and determining evidence-based ways to combat these issues. The problem is that requires much more time, effort and investment than imposing a new tax or banning very large soft drink containers.

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