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.

Ian Kemmish

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


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?


It's Froot Loops


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


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


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.


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

Ben D

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.

Jeff #3

#4 jimi

You clearly haven't been here that long. This is pretty much in the middle as far as post lengths are.

If rational solutions don't work, how about irrational ones? I vote for moving corn subsides to other fruits and vegetable. With ethanol and other corn based products picking up in popularity farmers can still get a good (market) price, and it'll reduce the amount of junk calories from corn and corn syrup in all the food around while lowering the price of produce.

Alex Marshall

People are getting fatter because they have less money to spend on food while their richer neighbors have more. You see few fat rich people, (with some notable exceptions.) As numerous studies have shown, poorer people eat more junk food because it's a cheaper way to consume calories needed to live. Want fewer fat people? Make income distribution better. Then you'll start to have poor people eating like rich people. James McWilliams unfortunately ignores this entire line of thought.


I am developing a community cooking class in a housing project. The students in the class are all overweight and at least in their 30's. The basis of the class is teaching the five actions that create happiness for people. 1. Be in the Moment, 2. Connect with others, 3. Learn something new, 4. Movement or exercise, 5. Give. I am using food to teach not only how to eat well but how to create healthy and happy lives. The class will be going until the end of the school year. I'm hoping by then, they will have created a tight group cohesiveness so that they will then be facilitators to others in creating happy and healthy lives and we can change the community in which they live.


you, sir, discount the undeniable social power of over-eating. fat people tend to find other fat people who give them little incentive to cut-back...much like alcoholics, pot-heads, and drug addicts. i propose a different, more radical cut. anyone over 250 pounds (no one outside the NFL needs to be over that weight and refrain from being a future health/tax burden on america) can no longer use public transportation, airplanes, or taxi-cabs in two-three years of being diagnosed by a doctor or social service person unless than have a documented illness/medical issue. also, they should have to pay a fat tax, like smokers do on cigarettes, to offset the national problem their 'choice' places on us to pay for their future cardiac arrest.


1. Stop incentives for industrial agriculture and large monocrops of corn, soy grown with fossil-intensive fertilizer and pesticides (helps gulf recover from dead zone which made more vulnerable to deepwater horizon, public health benefits, waterways improve)
2. Many more farmers needed to grow produce in diverse permaculture, creating employment for more manual labor and helping them burn more calories.

These will happen in a matter of decades by necessity but the sooner we get started the sooner we reap the benefits.
Also note that plenty of education is required for successful implementation of permaculture.


So much to do and here we are talking about individual choices.

Different from drugs (an innocent bystander could be hurt by someone intoxicated) or tobacco (second hand smoke), I don't see how my personal choices on food or, for that matter, waist line is of any concern to anyone.

How many additional years of life should I expect by going on a healthy diet for the rest of my life? Who says I want those additional years, living under a diet that I don't like? In my opinion, the four basic food groups are Pizza, Chocolate, Beer and Coffee.

What is next? Mandatory physical activity?

Look, if we start talking about mandatory physical education classes, shouldn't we also talk about mandatory math and science education?

Have you tried to compare those labels?

Different brands use different bases (2,000 to 3,000 calories daily intake), different portions (8 oz. of cereal, 4 units of this candy, whatever). And you really believe that this kind of information is meaningful and useful at all?



The discussion of selectively de-incentivizing soft drinks, etc, ignores the fact that those and most other processed foods are already made artificially cheap via gov't corn and oil subsidies. Freakonomics seems an apt description as to how I can get a double-cheeseburger at Burger King - with the costs of distant corn growing, cattle raising, processing, and transportation incorporated - for cheaper than a lb of broccoli grown 5 miles away.


jimi, you used 17 words to say TLDR. Keep the comments short please - max of 4 letters.

My issue is always that unhealthy food tastes better and is cheaper ($/calorie). I struggle right on the edge between normal and overweight. It'd be nice to have something tasty like ice cream and healthy like spinach. Basically the opposite of spinach flavored ice cream.


ok - so what's your answer? if these measure don't work, what would?


Marketing has to be part of the problem. What to do about it I have no idea.

Alex in Chicago

We could allow people to bully fat kids. This would be a strong incentive for fat kids to lose weight and for others to avoid gaining weight.


Subtle incentives are not incentives at all. You would need to increase the cost of soda at least 100% for me to even notice, and I am a college student with (obviously) little income.


Recent medical advances have reduced the mortality of obesity and the costs of basic treatment - which is good in terms of quality of life but bad in terms of 'enabling' obesity. In addition, our current healthcare system socializes the costs of more aggressive treatment in many cases.

Compared to these things, how can a marginal tax on sodas have any measureable impact?

The historic 'threat' of death from obesity doesn't resonate.

Require each person to pay for their own care for obesity related illnesses. In the short term, many may die becuase they are too fargone. But longer term, people will make better life choices because their physical and financial wellbeing is actually on the line.