Research News

Curbs on fast food chains could halt rise in obesity, says WHO

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 06 February 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1391
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

Government regulation of fast food chains could halt the global rise in obesity, a paper published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization has concluded.1

The paper looked at the number of fast food transactions per capita in 25 high income countries from 1999 to 2008 and compared this with changes in the average body mass index (BMI) of the population.

During that period the average number of fast food transactions per capita each year increased from 26.61 to 32.76, and BMI increased from 25.8 to 26.4. The largest increases in fast food transactions occurred in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, while the lowest occurred in Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Researchers compared these results with market deregulation by using the Index of Economic Freedom, which was developed by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank. The index marks countries each year on a scale of 1 to 100, where a low score (<50) means that a country is not economically free.

Researchers found that each unit increase in the economic index was associated with an increase of 0.27 in the average number of per capita fast food transactions each year. And each single unit increase in fast food consumption was associated with an increase of 0.02 in people’s BMI.

The countries with the largest increases in fast food transactions were also higher on the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom: Australia ranked third, New Zealand was fifth, Canada was sixth, and Ireland was ninth. By contrast Greece was 119th, Italy was 86th, Belgium was 35th, and the Netherlands ranked 15th.

The researchers concluded that government regulations halting the growth of fast food consumption might help to slow down the rise in obesity. They wrote, “Our study shows that countries adopting what are considered market liberal policies experience faster increases in both fast food consumption and mean BMI.”

They said that the results were in accordance with previous research, which showed that more stringent trade restrictions “including better protection of agricultural producers, the frequency of price controls, and stricter government regulations” were associated with lower levels of obesity.

Additional analysis by the researchers found that, although consumption at fast food chains was positively correlated with the mean BMI, this was not the case for transactions at independent food outlets.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1391