Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fattening of America

The Freakonomics blog addresses an issue near and dear to me. I've been teaching this in my classes for years. I find some of the conclusions and rationale suspect, but here's an excerpt from an interesting interview with health economist Eric Finkelstein that talks about his (and co-author Laurie Zuckerman's) new book The Fattening of America :

In sharp contrast, children are unable to make rational choices, unlike Uncle Al. I think that the government (and parents) have a critical role to minimize the possibility of children growing up to regret the diet and exercise choices they may have made as uninformed youths. Most government interventions are focused on schools, which makes sense given that the food the lunch ladies serve up is too often not that different from the birthday fare my son receives at Chuck E. Cheese. And then, of course, there’s the school vending machines. In my book, we discuss what’s happening in America’s school cafeterias, gymnasiums, and classrooms, and what can be done to help tomorrow’s adults make informed diet and exercise choices.
If we TRULY want a healthier America, we might have to take our legislative medicine when it comes to protecting kids.


Into the Light said...


Where does this stop? If the government can regulate what I feed my child, does that include at home? What would the be rationale for requiring that McD's limit trans fats in kids meals, but which would not apply to parents limiting trans fats in the way they cook at home?

Not arguing, just wondering. I am increasingly more and more wary of governmental intrusion. There is no doubt that much of it helps, but it also without doubt erodes civil and personal liberties.

What argument would one make against governmental intrusion into my wife's meal list, if government has the right to regulate what children eat? A child at home has no more ability to choose than a child at school.

I completely agree with the need to improve our national health. But, I wonder how this might be done through education and economic or health incentives, rather than strengthening the hand of Uncle Sam.

What do you think?

Cort said...


I'm not sure of the answer, either.
But, I know we are not living as long as countries similar to us in wealth and lifestyle. I know our obesity rate is the highest on the planet. Lip service about "good health decisions" does not seem to be working.

Does it erode civil liberties to ban Joe Camel from cigarette ads? If it does not erode them, how is the marriage of Disney and McDonald's OK to market to kids? If banning Joe Camel DOES erode civil liberties, why is Joe Camel gone?

Some schools are already regulating vending machines for fat and sugar content. I think some measures to eliminate trans fats and improve school lunches would not destroy the fabric of America. Trans fats only showed up on labels a few years ago even though they were used for years. If the word was out on trans fats from Day One, I doubt they would have been legal to start with. They simply do not break down well by natural processes. They are toxins.

From a health perspective, the fact that your wife HAS a meal list pretty much gets your family off the hook. :) People who eat most of their meals at home are generally healthier. Parents are not outside entities marketing to kids--that's a direct decision made at home, so those are two different issues to me.

If you are a parent feeding your kids at home, then it's up to you. If you are say, a kid eating two meals a day at public school or a college student with a mandatory meal plan at a public university and 10/11 options are fast food--well, I think that's a problem. You can't exercise your "personal responsibility" even if you want to. I think that's worse than gov't-regulated meals that might actually be healthy. Especially when ketchup can be counted as a "vegetable" (a Reagan-era USDA measure).

If we can set up an economic health incentive plan to get it done, that's fine with me, too. But, our culture resists such measures. The food lobby is one of the most powerful ones out there. I mentioned McD's marketing budget; when is the last time you saw a 5-A-Day commercial? Most kids do not even know what the 5-A-Day program is! I don't see much difference in the evils of gov't control or corporate dominance. It's not "personal choice" when you don't know what you are choosing. And, that gets back to your very important point on education, on which I totally agree.

The government intruded in meatpacking, too, and now our meat is actually inspected (Meat Inspection Act of 1906). We also don't have to eat (as many) rats and fingers of factory workers anymore (purportedly).

I'm not rah-rah government. I can tell you that I've NEVER advocated legislation as the primary resort to my students. In fact my message is this: you have to choose against the culture. We can do that to some degree, and we can choose for our kids to some degree, too. We can work to change the culture on our own. But, it would be nice to not have to UNLEARN this dependence on fast food.

I'm interested to hear more about your thoughts on economic/health incentives.

Into the Light said...

Good thoughts, Cort. I'll post more later, but for now: is ketchup a vegetable if it's put on green beans??? :-D

Cort said...

Ketchup on green beans...hmmm, dunno. Although, down South, we like to wrap green beans in bacon. That helps. :)

Reagan could count that as "protein" and "veggie." Voila! Health food!