There’s no shortage of scapegoats to take the blame for obesity. From our genes to our social circles, headlines over the last few decades have been filled with “surprising” and “new” causes of weight gain.
But lately, they’ve started to recycle. Seemingly out of fresh ideas, health “experts” are back to harping on a once-popular straw man: the price of food. Blaming our burgeoning waistlines on “cheap” food is nothing new for obesity activists. But now that grocery prices are soaring, they’re blaming them, too.

For years, nutrition groups have argued that when food prices fall, Americans buy (and eat) more than we need. The result, they claim, is obesity. If this theory was correct, the obvious upshot would be that when food prices rise, people would eat less and lose weight. And that, activists argue, would be a good thing.

Public health groups have lobbied for “sin taxes” on our favorite foods as a means of artificially inflating their costs. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has bragged that his group “could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses, [and] meat.” Nutrition professor Kelly Brownell justified his “Twinkie” tax proposal by claiming some foods are too “convenient, accessible, good-tasting … and cheap.”

One 2007 study even recommended that the United States consider economic recession as a “successful” diet plan. Researchers argued that an economic downturn in Cuba led to a substantial drop in average calories eaten (aka “famine”) and a decrease in obesity rates (aka “starvation”). This “light wallets, loose belts” approach, they claimed, could also work in America.

Now, it seems this small cadre of expensive food elitists has gotten its wish. In just one year, the price of eggs has climbed 35 percent, milk is up 23 percent, and a loaf of white bread has jumped 16 percent, according to the federal government. And there’s no sign of slowing down. In 2008, U.S. food costs are projected to rise another 5 percent — about double that of previous years.

With rising prices at the grocery store, the collective groan of the cash-strapped majority almost drowns out the unexpected cry of nutrition activists: “There’s a ‘surprising,’ ‘new’ cause of weight gain — expensive food.”

That’s right. The same crowd that once assured the public our waistlines were victims of cheap food is charging high prices with the very same crime.

These two conflicting claims can’t both be true. Actually, neither is. Economic research demonstrates that people’s diets are not very responsive to food prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2007 that “simply manipulating food prices is not likely to induce significant improvements in American consumers’ diets.”

Food elitists erroneously assume that consumers only eat “bad” foods because of tight finances or a lack of information. But healthy food is cheap, and nutrition information is everywhere. One USDA report found that there are literally “127 different ways to eat a serving of fruits and vegetables for less than the price of a 3-ounce candy bar.”
Equating “cheap” food with “bad” food is a gross oversimplification. Some of the highest calorie dishes don’t come from the local burger joint. Instead, they’re served on expensive china in fine-dining establishments. Last year, New York magazine reported that a dinner at one the city’s most expensive restaurants tipped the scales at more than 2,400 calories and 100 grams of fat. That’s enough to make a cheeseburger look like diet food.

Energy spent fretting over the price of food — whether potatoes or caviar — distracts from energy not being spent at all. Physical inactivity is the real documented cause of obesity. Americans simply don’t move enough. We rely on gadgets and gizmos (from food processors to riding lawn mowers) to handle daily tasks.

According to one report, the absence of these manual chores each day accounts for a 100-200 calorie surplus, unused energy that “potentially could account for the entire obesity epidemic.”

There might not be anything “surprising” or “new” about it, but exercise is a real solution to weight gain. It doesn’t take a government edict or a news headline to change our lifestyle — just a little will power and a few small choices.

Take the stairs. Mow the lawn. Play outside with your kids. This approach to better health may take a little extra effort, but you definitely can’t argue with the price.