Earlier this month, New York State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah went on a tour of shopping mall food courts to declare war on obesity. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. The economic impact of this epidemic is enormous — over $150 billion dollars a year in medical costs alone.
One of the latest weapons in this war, heavily promoted by Dr. Shah, is New York’s iChoose600 campaign. This campaign encourages fast food patrons to select meals that are 600 calories or less.
It’s not that easy to know which meals contain less than 600 calories. We routinely underestimate the number of calories in foods we eat, particularly those foods that we consider healthy. It will soon be a little easier to gauge how many calories you’re eating, however, thanks to a new federal calorie-posting law passed earlier this year.
New York City was the first to enact such a law, and similar mandates have been passed in other states and municipalities around the country. Starting in 2012, federal law will require all restaurants with 20 or more locations to post the calorie count for all items on their menus (except, oddly enough, for alcoholic beverages).
The restaurant and beverage industry supports the new calorie-posting law, but not for reasons you think. They support this new federal mandate because it will supplant the existing patchwork of state and municipal laws, often preempting more restrictive local requirements for the posting of nutritional information.
When such laws were first proposed, however, food industry lobbyists opposed them. Some free-enterprise activists still do. They are seen as yet one more example of government interference in the American marketplace and a violation of individual liberties.
That argument is wrong. Americans should have the right to make their own dining decisions, such as whether to eat dinner at home or go out to McDonald’s. Such economic freedom is a central tenet of our market society. But one of the fundamentals of the free enterprise system is unfettered and honest flow of information about goods and services. Deceptive marketing — such as disingenuously promoting a chicken Ceasar salad as a healthy eating option when it actually contains 60 grams of fat — violates that. If anything, free-market activists should be championing these laws.
I’m a strong supporter of calorie-posting laws as weapons in the war on obesity. Recent studies show that they work. However, I don’t think that calorie posting laws or the iChoose600 campaign are enough to stem the rising tide of fat.
The causes of the obesity epidemic are complex, and include environmental and socioeconomic factors that go beyond the food choices of individual Americans. The urban poor have some of the highest rates of obesity in the US. One reason is they lack the money to buy healthy foods. A box of macaroni and cheese is cheaper than a bunch of bananas, and packs far more of the calories needed to satiate the hunger of a family of four. It should come as no surprise then, that a single mother living in the Bronx spends the bulk of her limited food budget on unhealthy processed foods rather than on healthy fruits and vegetables. So pervasive is this problem that most stores and supermarkets in poor urban neighborhoods don’t even stock much in the way of fresh produce.
If we want to reduce obesity, we need more than just slick public health campaigns. We need to make healthy eating an economically viable choice for all Americans. We need to restructure the workplace so that employees are encouraged to exercise, by providing gym memberships or giving lunch breaks long enough that people can go for a walk. We need to redesign our cities and neighborhoods so that residents have safe opportunities for exercising out-of-doors, such as providing sidewalks on busy streets, walking and biking trails, and well-maintained public facilities like basketball courts. Helping individuals to make better food choices has a role to play in the fight against obesity, but we also tackle some these more fundamental issues if we are going to win this war.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 14, 2011. It is also available on the WAMC website.]