Freakonomics Tackles Our Addiction to Sugar

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Freakonomics is a podcast that brings the expertise of economists and scientists to the problems of our day. A recent episode, “100 Ways to Fight Obesity,” explores the social costs of America’s eating habits and asks 12 really smart people for their solutions.

In the “show that explores the hidden side of everything,” we find out that children are born already programmed by the sugar they were exposed to in the womb. And that’s just the start.

One commentator says he reads baby food labels in the grocery store to get angry. Why? Because the first few ingredients will be sugar-based (corn syrup, corn starches). In an environment where our bodies are pre-set with “normal” being a high-sugar diet, we have little choice when it comes to being addicted to sugar.

More Sugar = More Calories = More Weight

They reinforce the basic idea that calories drive weight and that our children have increased their intake of sugar over the last few decades, doubling the amount of soda they drink. On average, our kids consume an additional 180 calories a day (a 10 percent increase).

They also asked if children are aware of childhood obesity themselves. A paper (in publication) says they are, and this puts an additional emotional burden on kids, and not just about their body image, but all kinds of worries – things like getting bad grades or getting in a car accident. Pushing too hard against obesity in kids also has an unintended consequence - a rise in the incidence of eating disorders.

The podcast continues, pointing out that obesity, just like a “traditional” addiction, comes with both social and medical costs. Kids move from being shunned by peers into an adulthood where they (hopefully) learn to adapt but then start to see the long-term health effects of being overweight.

Proposed Solutions to Curb Sugar Addiction

Some of the radical solutions proposed by the panel include:

  • - Tax unhealthy foods.
  • - Eliminate the tax deduction for money spent marketing calories to kids.
  • - Focus not on obesity directly but nutrition. Fixing malnutrition fixes the problem indirectly.
  • - Shame and punish parents with fat kids.
  • - Calorie-monitoring bracelets with real-time feedback on calories consumed.

How radical did the suggestions get? What about a tapeworm-style parasite, or carrying around a small container of vomit to smell when you feel hungry?

In the final analysis, obesity is going to be the number one health problem in the U.S. for the coming decades and will have to be addressed. It’s worth listening to the dialogue.

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