Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Nadeem Esmail


A Junk Food Tax Belongs in the Junk Bin

Posted: 07/15/2013 10:03 am

Junk Food Depression

Health associations have long been calling for a "fat tax"; taxes on foods that some nutritionists and researchers don't want us to eat or drink.

Unfortunately, the lack of sound thinking behind vilifying sugary drinks or less healthful snacks has not changed, nor has the blunt, imprecise, and unfair nature of a 'junk food' or 'sugary drink' tax.

No matter the good intentions, taxing certain foods to make us healthier remains bad public policy. There are several reasons why this is so -- the most fundamental being that such taxes affect everyone regardless of their girth or lifestyle choices.

Consider the case of a Canadian who runs three times a week, plays sports from time to time, eats a well-balanced diet, and is in excellent physical condition. If she likes to relax with a pop and watch a movie on the weekend, or enjoy a chocolate bar with lunch, why should she pay more to do so?

Notably, in 2012, 52.5 per cent of Canadians aged 18 and older, and 21.8 per cent of Canadian youth (aged 12 to 17) reported themselves to be overweight or obese. In other words, flip those statistics over, and a sizable portion of the adult population and the majority of the youth population are neither overweight nor obese by body mass index (the common metric of overweight and obesity) standards.

'Junk food' or sugary drink taxes not only fail to distinguish between overweight/obese Canadians and those who are not, but they are also a regressive form of taxation. A number of studies have found that diets of less healthy food options are less expensive than diets of healthier food options.

Further, lower socioeconomic classes are typically more dependent on fast foods for their nourishment. Both suggest that a tax on less healthful/fattier food options will have a disproportionate effect on lower-income Canadians.

'Junk food' taxes are also not guaranteed to reduce overall caloric intake, as some hope. Importantly, fast food consumption (a common target for a "fat tax") may be relatively unresponsive to price changes because individuals may simply switch to other non-taxed, but still energy-dense (lots of calories per serving size) foods.

Then there is the issue of defining which foods should be taxed and the difficulties therein (think fruit juices for example). That will no doubt require increased bureaucracy: a new agency would need to be created to determine which foods or beverages qualify for the tax and which might be exempted. The proposal that such taxes be offset with subsidies or tax reductions for other more healthful foods or in other areas only compound this problem.

Targeting only one food group, such as sugary beverages, does not necessarily resolve these issues or those outlined above.

Those who wish to vilify soft drinks must also contend with a problematic reality: According to Statistics Canada, soft drink consumption fell 35 per cent in Canada between 1999 and 2012. Yet, obesity has risen over that time.

Fundamentally, how much we eat (of all foods), how much we exercise, and how we live our lives generally (plus genetic factors) determines the size of our waistlines. And even then, the relationship to ill health is not clear and obvious as many studies show some extra weight may be protective.

The consumption of less healthful and/or fattier foods when balanced with other foods and exercise will not lead to a person being overweight or obese, nor will it necessarily lead to poorer health. No single food or beverage can be held responsible for weight gain.

Overly simplistic solutions to obesity that vilify an industry or food product are bad public policy. The reality is that 'junk food' taxes or sugary drink taxes are ineffective, blunt instruments that fail to recognize the complex and manifold causes of obesity. It's time we put the idea of such taxes in their rightful place: the junk bin.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Slice Of Pepperoni Pizza: 290 Calories

    The calories in pizza add up dramatically, especially if you have more than one slice. One way to feel full with fewer slices is to load up on veggie toppings. Think green peppers, onions, and black olives instead of meats or<a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-recipes/cheese.aspx" target="_blank"> extra cheese. </a>

  • Start Dancing

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Meanwhile, if you want to undo the calories in a slice of pizza, plan on 60 minutes of fast-paced ballroom or swing dancing. Or you could try 90 minutes of walking around the shopping mall or tackling vigorous cleaning chores at home.

  • Can Of Pop: 150 Calories

    Desperately thirsty with no water in sight? You won’t be the first person to down a cold can of sugary soda with your fingers crossed against the weight gain. Want an easy way to feel less guilty and nurture man’s best friend as well?

  • Walk The Dog

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Spend 40 minutes walking your dog (or a neighbour’s, if need be) at a moderate pace, advises Moore. Of course, it’s always best to choose a no- or low-calorie drink and avoid having to exercise calories away.

  • Caffe Latte: 260 Calories

    As coffee-based pick-me-ups go, this one is tasty and perhaps not as indulgent as, say, the largest mocha with whipped cream on the menu. Still, a 16-ounce (medium) latte with sugary flavoring, even with nonfat milk, is still a bit of a guilty pleasure when it comes to calories in food.

  • Try Weight Training

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Exercise calories away with 30 minutes of biking. An hour of moderate weight training or resistance training will achieve close to the same result.

  • Doughnuts: 260 Calories

    Even if you ate breakfast, a fresh doughnut at a breakfast meeting or from a box passed out at your child’s soccer game may simply “disappear” before you know it. Now what?

  • Stroke, Stroke, Stroke

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Even though a doughnut may not get you in the mood for swimsuit season, it’s time to hit the pool: Just 25 minutes of vigorous swimming will cure these excess calories in food. Of course, the exercise calories you burn will change with the intensity of your workout. Swimming lazily on your back burns fewer calories than energetic laps.

  • Chocolate Bar: 210 Calories

    Can’t resist the treats in the checkout aisle? The average bar of chocolate will cost you. If you want to enjoy it, set aside your lunch break for a mini-workout to exercise calories away.

  • Take The Stairs

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Approximately 13 minutes of climbing up the stairs at work or on a machine will pay the piper. Moore points out that chocolate bars are not all created equal. Depending on the bar, you may be faced with more calories (and stairs to climb). Read the label and adjust accordingly.

  • Small Slice Of Cake: 312 Calories

    It’s a challenge to avoid a celebratory slice of cake with gooey icing. Your parents’ wedding anniversary, your toddler’s birthday party, your co-workers’ bridal shower — sooner or later this sugary confection will find its way onto your plate.

  • Take A Hike

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Get rid of the calories in small slice of frosted cake by lacing up your hiking boots: About 50 minutes of hiking outdoors will counter the calories in this food. Alternatively, you could use a power mower to groom your yard for 45 minutes to an hour.

  • Small Hot Fudge Sundae: 392 Calories

    Hopefully you hit an ice cream parlor close to your favorite gym. It's small, but it can be dangerous.

  • Spinning Or House Work

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> It will take nearly 75 minutes in a spinning class to wipe out the calorie load of the small sundae that you probably ate in under 10 minutes. If you’d rather exercise calories away by making some home improvements, cleaning gutters around the house for the same amount of time will do the trick — and give you a great sense of accomplishment.

  • One Large Bagel: 320 Calories

    Who doesn't love a toasted bagel with their morning coffee? But the larger the bagel, the more calories you’re racking up. How to undo the damage?

  • Jogging

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> The calories burned jogging for 45 minutes at a good pace will counteract those in one large bagel. Of course, you’ll have to work harder and longer if you slathered on the cream cheese or any other topping.

  • Glass Of Red Wine: 125 Calories

    Whether with dinner, during the cocktail hour, or while socializing at an event, a 5-ounce glass of red wine may not be the worst diet offense you could commit. And this one is pretty easy to work off.

  • Jump Rope

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> Just spend 12 minutes jumping rope, and you’ve erased the dietary damage. Moore points out that calorie counts for alcoholic beverages vary. While a small glass of wine is somewhat innocuous, a giant margarita can clock in 200 to 300 calories … and necessitate a marathon jump-rope session to exercise calories away.

  • A Single-Patty Fast Food Cheeseburger: 313 Calories

    When you’re on the road or just out and about, an irresistible craving may steer you toward a popular guilty pleasure, the fast-food drive-through.

  • Kickboxing

    <strong>BURN IT:</strong> This tasty (and oh-so-bad-for-you) meal can be erased with exercise calories burned in about 30 minutes of kickboxing — a fabulous stress buster in addition to conquering calories in food. Keep in mind that you’ll have to double up your exercise effort if you had a medium side of fries with that burger.


Follow Nadeem Esmail on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@NadeemEsmail