Taxing Calories

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we have, in the past, examined the debate surrounding taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. Proponents of these taxes believe that by reducing the consumption of these drinks, they help combat overweight and obesity while raising much-needed revenue. Opponents offer a variety of arguments, often asserting that such taxes interfere with the private choices of consumers and that they target only a small sliver of the causes of obesity. Why, some ask, single out beverages — rather than, say, high-calorie fast-food meals?


A recent study put the idea of taxing high-calorie meals to the test, exploring how consumers might react to various levels of taxation. Published in January in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study enrolled 178 university students who were asked to choose a lunch for themselves from a menu, which displayed the prices of all options. They were asked to choose again with prices changed to reflect a tax of 25% applied to high-calorie meal options (such as bacon cheeseburgers and brownies), and then again with a tax of 50% applied to these items. For about half of all participants, menus displayed the calorie content of items as well as their price.

As reported in a Reuters article on the study, participants tended to reduce their hypothetical caloric intake by between 100 and 300 calories when one of the taxes was in place. The effects of the taxes were less drastic, however, among the participants who received calorie counts on their menus; this group tended to consume fewer calories even without any tax. A segment of participants — those who described themselves as diet-conscious when responding to survey questions — did not change their behavior in response to the taxes, choosing lower-calorie options regardless of their prices.

While a 50% tax on junk food may be effective at reducing caloric intake, the study’s researchers acknowledge that such a tax would most likely not be politically viable anywhere. It remains to be seen whether a smaller tax could also have a meaningful effect on calorie consumption. A further limitation of this study is that its controlled environment — using a menu of calorically contrasting options, but no actual food — may bear too little resemblance to the real-world food landscape to accurately predict the outcome of a tax. When presented with thousands of meal items spread across many different restaurants — and with factors such as taste and satiation in mind — consumers may make different choices than the study suggests they would.

What do you think — is the idea of a tax on high-calorie food items worth exploring? Should any such tax take factors other than calories into account, such as freshness or nutrient content? Would you eat less fast food — or similarly unhealthy food — if its price went up by 50%? Whether or not you support the idea of a high-calorie-food tax, what other public initiatives to reduce overweight and obesity would you support? Leave a comment below!

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  • Stephanie

    I do not believe that this will stop the fight against obesity. I am obese and prediabetic. I also used to smoke. I am now on a path to correct my “bad habits.” However, there are many who have not quit smoking when the prices when up in my area. If someone does not choose to eat healthier and give up “bad habits” it will not make a difference. What can make a bigger difference is for healthier options to be cheaper than unhealthier ones. If you have limited income, as I do, many times it is just cheaper to eat unhealthy because the $1 items do not include salads and healthier sandwiches. In the supermarket, fresh fruits and veggies, whole wheat options and leaner cuts of meat cost more than hamburgers, hot dogs, and chips.

  • Carl P

    We are already taxed way to much, and taxes are only legal for the legitimate functions of Government, when taxes are used to promote a social concern we then have a Government that is out of control and very definitely interfering with our life and Liberty of Property and association. My thought is to have less Government Intervention in my private life as long as I am not interfering in others right.
    No, there should be No Government tax on what Individuals Eat!

  • Patty

    Higher prices and education combimed have caused many people to quit smoking. Yes some do smoke, but they are becoming more and more of a minority. I think the same concept will apply to fast food as well. Many people are attracted to fast food because of the consistent taste and price. If they are educated that much of that taste is from fat, sugar, fillers, and other chemical preservatives and they affect they have on the body combined with not so cheap prices, people will start to think more about what they put in their bodies and make better choices. Without education and incentives that make you think twice like higher prices, few will change.

  • Wayne Carr

    Taxing services or product to perform some social engineering is not a constitutional mandate. Tax is for revenue collection only not to prevent anyone from buying product or services.

    People have to have self-discipline to keep from smoking, drinking or eating too much or non-nutritionsal foods.Parents have to discipline their chnildren and to teach them a healthy life style. This country should not becoame a Nanny state and should allow the freedom to m ake mistakes and to fail.

    We are becoming a country that is allowing the government to control our complete lives.

  • Jon Hill

    Social engineering through taxation is a favored strategy of progressive thinking. I think I’ll opt out of that too. George Will recently gave an excellent assessment of this kind of thinking: “Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior. Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives…[have the] goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

  • Tia

    How dare the government stick their nose in my food business! You don’t have the right to punish anyone for having what they want to eat. Shame, shame, shame on those even thinking about it!!!! SHAME!!!!!!!

  • William

    I couldn’t have said it better than Carl
    P | Mar 02, 2011 at 2:49 pm and
    Wayne Carr | Mar 02, 2011 at 5:35 pm.
    Right on.

  • Robert

    Well, isn’t fast food already taxed? It has been in NH for over thirty years. Is this purely for revenue? Would the food police agree to the fast food outlets raising prices 50% thus increasing profit? I think it more appropriate to tax studies like this one. We’re talking about libery here!

  • Scott

    Enough with taxes. I agree with everyone who states that using taxes to “CONTROL the People” is bad in every way possible. Any taxes collected will cost everyone, and won’t make a bit of difference to anyone other than those who eat responsibly, and end up paying taxes for those with abusive habits that eat like pigs.

    People who overeat, are obese, and, consequently, are in bad health because of bad nutrition, do so because they choose to be – yes I know about hormonal problems, heredity, etc., but every meal, every snack, every drink, and every day is about choices – choices about what they consume, choices about the consequences of poor nutrition, and choices about when they will personally take responsibility for their own health.

    These are the choices that members of my family make on a daily basis, a family with a long history of diabetes going back to grandparents on both sides of the family. We deal with what is, what we can do about it, and what happens as a result of our daily choices – we do not advocate burdening everyone else for what could be our own indiscretions, poor eating habits, poor living style, and resultant poor health. When we want to eat a burger, fries, or whatever, we do so in a nutritionally responsible manner – and we don’t want to pay a higher price for those who chose to be inrresponsible, ignorant, and a burden on others.

    When everyone quits trying to blame their own situations on everyone else, and expecting everyone else to pay for their own poor choices, then this Country will be healthier, wealthier, and more secure. This applies to everything in life, not just food.

    Get off your butts, get knowledgeable about what you eat and the effects of both poor and good nutrition. While you’re at it, get knowledgeable on personal finance, better skill sets, personal organization, and about life in general. Take command of your own destiny, health, and wealth – these are your own responsibilities, and no one else’s.

    Last suggestion: Quit Whining, and Get Moving Ahead!

  • Cathy

    Why is it that in this country one segment of the population (who think they know best) feels the need to legislate the rest of the population into compliance? It is each person’s right to choose what they will or will not put in their body. Did the country learn nothing from the Volstead Act in 1920? It does not work – look at the “War on Drugs”! How’s that working out? It has been said time and again you cannot legislate morals just because you think it is wrong. Having said that – if you are receiving government assistance and have children there should be some guidelines and things that food stamps or other assistance cannot be used for. But this country is already taxed within an inch of its life now.

  • Linda

    It would be nice to require restaurants and fast food outlets to put the caloric value next to each food item. If anything is going to be done, that would be the best place to start. Also, what requirements would be put on the food manufacturers because to get real change in diets, one has to come at it from both ends,simultaneously. And, some plan would have to be put in place to monitor unentended cconsequences, because it would not be good for the economy if doing this put alot of companies and manufactures out of business.

  • Susan Coiner

    Why not tax fast foods? We have taxed the tobacco industry for years. I agree that you can not legislate morality but we can tax it for the benefit of funding classes and brochures to educate people on nutrition.

  • Vanessa

    No tax, more education! People are creatures of habit and addiction. We make choices about what we eat. However, we do not always give much thought about the choices we make about food. Therefore, when we choose to eat, we will not think about the taxation and choose not to eat fastfood or anything else.We eat. Secondly, some communities have no grocery outlet for many miles. Their income and acccess to transportation is limited. They eat what they can access and fast food is nearby. At any rate, taxation is not the answer. Education is good but powerless until we reach the point where we are willing to apply what we have learned.