Why Healthy Behavior Is the Hard Choice

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Our society is structured to encourage unhealthy diets and physically inactive lifestyles, which are key risk factors for chronic diseases including diabetes, heart diseases, and cancers. We are bombarded with advertisements for hyperprocessed foods laden with saturated fat, salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, “low-fat” foods often contain high amounts of sugar and salt, and parks and recreation spaces are often inaccessible or unsafe.

Four simple ideas - taxes on unhealthy products, product reformulation, improving the informational environment, and increasing healthy food accessibility - could make healthy behaviors the “default” choice for most consumers. First, taxes on unhealthy products, such as sugary beverages, increase prices and reduce demand, especially among youth and low-income groups. Revenue generated through taxes could be earmarked to increase access to and affordability of healthier alternatives, such as subsidies for fruit and vegetables. Second, product reformulation regulations improve the nutritional value of food and beverage products by requiring companies to gradually reduce fats, sugars, and sodium in packaged foods. Third, rules requiring clear and comprehensive nutritional information help consumers to select healthier products. Some jurisdictions are considering going further, by requiring explicit warning labels on unhealthy products such as sugary drinks. In addition to informing consumers, advertising restrictions minimize exposure to aggressive industry advertising, which often targets children. Finally, zoning and licensing laws limiting fast-food outlets and incentivizing the sale of healthier products promote accessibility and affordability of healthy, nutritious food.

In America, and throughout the world, perverse societal structures encourage unhealthy diets and physically inactive lifestyles. With obesity reaching epidemic levels and chronic diseases posing real harms to families, the health system, and productivity, it is time to structure so