It’s Not Just McDonald’s: How Israel Must Reverse Obesity Trends

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A McDonald's branch in Masada, near the Dead Sea.Credit: Emil Salman

What initially looked like a slip of the tongue by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who declared “McDonald’s out!” at a closed conference of cardiologists earlier this month, quickly proved to be part of a large-scale and unusual campaign by his ministry against unhealthy food.

It began with a ministry-sponsored television advertisement against soft drinks, in which the “star” was a bottle that resembled Coca-Cola. It continued with the statement against McDonald’s and reached its peak with the start of discussions by a regulatory committee on promoting good nutrition, whose meetings will even be televised and open to both journalists and the public.

Litzman’s message to both the food industry and the public is clear: The Health Ministry is determined to effect real change in Israelis’ nutritional habits, and it doesn’t intend to wink and nod at, or capitulate to, the powerful food industry.

The ministry fully understands what the entire world has long since grasped: Obesity is a global plague that carries enormous health and financial costs. Obesity rates are rising steadily, and at a frightening pace.

Until the 1980s, obesity rates in most of the world were under 10 percent. But today, in about half of all Western countries, at least 50 percent of the public are either overweight or obese. In Israel, a quarter of adults and 14 percent of children – 1.7 million people in total – suffer from obesity, whose harmful side effects can include diabetes, heart and artery disease, fatty liver disease, cancer, lower work productivity, depression, lower quality of life, and more.

The cost of treating obesity and its side effects has already reached 6 billion shekels ($1.6 billion) a year in Israel. That’s 10 percent of our total annual national health expenditure. “If we don’t deal with obesity, the cost of treating it and its side effects will be an extremely heavy burden that could destroy the country economically,” the Health Ministry warned at the launch of the committee’s discussions.

Throughout the world, and in Israel too, it is increasingly recognized that the huge increase in obesity isn’t due solely to an individual’s laziness or gluttony, but also to the unhealthy environment that surrounds him: from the ingredients in processed foods – which are laden with sugar, salt and fat – to the aggressive way such foods are marketed, while concealing the harm they cause.

It’s this environment that the state must contend with, using every governmental tool at its disposal: taxing unhealthy foods like sugary drinks; making healthy food accessible to the poor by lowering customs duties and opening the economy to competition that will lower the prices of fruits and vegetables; increasing public awareness of the importance of healthy food; and, just as was done with cigarettes, stressing the damage caused by fast food, processed food and sweetened food.

Other countries have already proven that this is possible. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

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