The Rational War on Fat

An obesity crisis is upon us and the solutions have proven to be stubborn. The most popular policy proposals have been rooted in the assumption that humans will make self-interested choices in the face of well-designed incentives. That is to say, that we’ll be rational. Selectively imposed taxes, nutritional labeling, and improved access to fresh produce are just three ways that Federal and state governments have – through faith in reason – worked to lure our palates away from the excessive consumption of junk food.

By no means have these efforts failed, but considerable evidence suggests that whatever success they’ve achieved has been conspicuously countered by a national waistband seemingly guided by the imperatives of Manifest Destiny. 68 percent of Americans are currently overweight or obese. This figure, moreover, shows no sign of retreating.

There’s little doubt that governmental incentives work – to a point. Most states (33 by 2009) have imposed a sales tax on sugary carbonated drinks. Numerous studies underscore the logic of such a measure. One found that a 10 percent hike in the price of carbonated soft drinks would reduce the amount of soft drinks purchased by 8 to 10 percent. Another predicted that a 20 percent decrease in calorically sweetened beverages would result in an average annual weight loss of 3.6 pounds for adults. Not bad. From the perspective of common sense, it seems that taxing unhealthy food options would qualify as effective policy.

But the problem with taxing sodas alone is that the tax only works to lower obesity rates if consumers decrease overall caloric intake, not just of soda. When it comes to taxing carbonated beverages, what guarantee is there that consumers won’t compensate-or even overcompensate-elsewhere for the calories lost to soft drinks? Absolutely none. And thus it’s no surprise that a 2009 study found sales taxes to have had minimal impact on obesity. We can tax individual items until the coffers spill over, but until we can figure out how to tax excess calories (an impossible task without Big Brother-styled intervention), rather than the sources of them, this approach to placing the nation on a much needed diet will have a sclerotic impact at best.

Nutritional labeling is another popular option to the obesity crisis. The rationale here seems equally airtight. Enlighten consumers to the horrific amount of saturated fat and calories they’re preparing to consume and they’ll reconsider, cowed by the arterial assault that will ensue. Federal labeling began with the 1990 Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, which required selected nutritional information to be displayed on most packaged foods. Labeling has since reached restaurants. Displayed nutritional information is now legally mandated in New York City and in California (in establishments with over 20 franchises). Currently there’s talk of front-of-package labeling, which basically means placing the nutritional news right in your face.

Once again, the basic logic here is not unreasonable. Reports published in the wake of NLEA indicated that about 48 percent of consumers had changed their mind about a food choice based on label information. That’s a promising statistic. Other studies have found equally encouraging results.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that the prevalence of overweight and obese Americans has steadily edged upward since the onset of NLEA. Perhaps labeling is making the rate of increase slower than it otherwise would have been, but that’s difficult to measure. What we can say for certain about nutritional labels is that while users have generally gained less Body Mass Index (BMI) than non-users, the impact has been modest at best for all users except non-Hispanic women (and no one, as far as I can tell, knows why that’s the case).

It’s true that if more non-users read more labels, then skyward obesity trends might start to plateau. But that’s a big if. The challenge of becoming label literate is underscored by the fact that savvy brand labels so often counteract nutritional data. I recently purchased an 8-oz bag of granola (granola=good for me, right?) adorned with an earth friendly label that all but screamed “healthy choice!” It wasn’t until I got home and read the fine print that I learned that this supposedly friendly bag of dietary virtue was little more than a plastic sac of fat-enhanced with butter and two days worth of saturated fat.

For now, my sense is that, for most of the population, the intoxication of fat and sugar (often disguised as health food) will continue to bend with great reluctance to the officious details of a little label. This isn’t to say we should stop labeling-more nutritional information cannot hurt. But let’s not oversell its promise when it comes to substantially alleviating our lust for crap.

A third method that’s been put forth to improve the American diet is to make healthy food more accessible. There’s been considerable talk in policy circles lately about the prevalence of “food deserts” and “food swamps”-culinary netherworlds where fresh produce is either non-existent or deluged under a sea of Twinkies and Fruit Loops. The solution here also seems perfectly logical: provide incentives for grocery stores selling fresh produce to sprout up in under served areas. Obama’s 2011 budget has appropriated $400 million to do precisely that.

But don’t expect much. There’s plenty of evidence supporting a strong correlation between ease of access to healthy food and reduced obesity risk. Similarly, there’s proof that those with limited access to healthy food spend less on it. Causation, though, is another matter. A couple of things to consider: a) a study of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients found that participants lived an average of 1.8 miles from the nearest source of fresh produce but still traveled an average of 4.9 miles (most likely to a superstore) to buy their groceries; and b) sixty-eight percent of Americans are fat but-at the most-8 percent of us lack easy access to healthy food choices. Interpreting these points, Michele Ver Ploeg sums up their implications nicely: “Even though most Americans have fabulous access to healthy foods, on average, they eat only about half the recommended daily levels of fruits and vegetables.” In other words, we behave irrationally.

When it comes to food, I would venture to say that we’re all irrational. No matter what the nature of our diet, there’s always something to it that, on some level, from some perspective, doesn’t make sense, even to ourselves. I suspect that this is why we’re so wildly passionate about our food choices (as I’m sure responses to this piece will confirm)-our conviction compensates for the fact that we can never be totally sure why we’re eating what we’re eating. Given the measures that so many Americans do to lose weight-diet pills, gastric bypass surgery, smoking, the paleo diet, the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, and so on– is it likely that we’ll consistently follow the perfectly rational incentives designed by benevolent governmental guardians? Fat chance.

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  1. Ian Kemmish says:

    Of course we’re rational. Our scoffing behaviour is just rational for a different environment to the one we now find ourselves in.

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  2. David says:

    This article completely ignores the fact that the basic problem is nutritional illiteracy (How many calories are in a gram of sugar? fat? What is the thermal effect of protein intake? In short, what do those labels even mean?).

    People eat what they are told to eat, and they get fatter. The USDA’s recommendations are that you consume the same ratio of macronutrients that we feed to cattle to fatten them up. Why is it shocking that we rational people follow this advice to no avail?

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  3. AM says:

    It’s Froot Loops

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  4. jimi says:

    This is a blog. Quit allowing such long posts. I suggest a maximum of about 500 words.

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  5. frankenduf says:

    don’t forget xercise- incentivizing (eg via gym subsidies) should help as well

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  6. Miles says:

    A core problem: the american common wisdom about nutrition is generally wrong. Eating fat does not make you fat — just like eating carbohydrate does not make you carbohydrate. Similarly, eating cholesterol does not increase your cholesterol level (cholesterol is a transporter, the different kinds increase when the stuff they transport increases). As a result, the nutrition information printed leads people to make bad (fattening) choices. For instance, low-fat foods frequently trade a reduction in fat for an increase in carbohydrates (sugar) to compensate for the lost taste. It’s not an easy problem to solve either. Nutrition science is in a horrid state, with poorly designed “studies”; lots of correlation/causation confusion; over reaching conclusions from survey studies, etc.

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  7. Rob says:

    End subsidies for corn and soy, raise the cost of ultra-calorie-dense sweetener, save the cheerleader, save the world.

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  8. Ben D says:

    Why not make people who have unhealthy habits pay more for health insurance? Tie premiums to regular physicals that include weight, BMI, etc. measurements? If you choose to increase your health risks, that is up to you, but society should not be paying for it. I have no problem with every American becoming obese – that’s their choice – but the costs should be internalized.

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