Monday, February 8, 2016

The Food Police

Things are so bad that Michael Bloomberg is contemplating a run for the presidency. As a businessman Bloomberg is far more successful than Donald Trump. He has far more experience in government. He was surely a competent mayor of the Big Apple.

But Bloomberg was also in thrall to the strange notions of behavioral economics. He knew what was best and he wanted to nudge people in toward healthier habits. He was fascinated by the possibility that if movie theatres served smaller glasses of diet soda people would drink less. Since diet soda is sugary poison, this is an unalloyed good. Right?

A Bloomberg run for the White House would surely provoke a national conversation about the Big Gulp. If there’s anything America needs right now it’s another national conversation about unhealthy foods.

But Mayor Bloomberg did not merely try to ban the Big Gulp. He promoted public service commercials that showed soda drinkers losing their limbs. Call it a guilt trip… it says that if you do what you are not supposed to do you are going to be punished. New York Magazine reports on the amputation ads:

You might remember this ad from the city’s Bloomberg era: An overweight man sits on a stool as he faces the camera; his right leg appears to be amputated below the knee. It was a jarring PSA from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, popping up in subway cars in 2012 to urge New Yorkers to cut back on oversize sugary beverages. As Thomas Farley, then the city’s health commissioner, said at the time, the intent was to warn “people about the risks of super-size portions so that they can make more informed choices about what they eat.”

In truth, this does not really help anyone to make an informed choice. It is a threat, pure and simple: stop drinking the sodas or someone will come along and punish you.

As ads go, this one was not very effective. New York continues:

There were many problems with this ad. For one, no one is particularly interested in being informed about the possibility of a legless future while riding the subway home. For another: The man in the photograph did not, in fact, have an amputated leg, and the image had been altered to appear more dramatic. Yet had the message been less aesthetically aggressive, it would have likely backfired anyway. New evidence suggests that people who are trying to diet end up eating more unhealthy snacks after seeing negative “food police”-style messages like this one, reports a team of researchers at Arizona State University. 

It’s not just that such ads are ineffective. They end up producing the opposite of what they are trying to produce. As it happens, people who are not dieting are unfazed by these ads. But, people who are dieting react by eating more unhealthy foods. Something similar happened when Michelle Obama tried to force children into eating what she considered more healthy lunches. The children refused to eat the carrots and broccoli, but ran out of school at the first opportunity to chow down on burgers and pizza.

Why does this happen? The researchers discovered that when people are presented with negative messages by the food police, they believe that their freedom is being threatened. Thus, they exercise their freedom in the only way they can: by eating unhealthy foods.

For example, dieters who were told that dessert is always bad consumed more dessert than did those who were told that dessert is always good.

New York explains:

While the study’s food messages might seem oversimplified when compared to real-life nutritional information, versions of these negative food sentiments are all around us, from recent dietary guidelines urging Americans to “limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats” to the one-legged man from the old Health Department ads. And yet many of us aren’t listening. “Evidence suggests that most Americans simply don’t follow government eating guidelines, regardless of their accuracy,” [Nguyen] Pham says. “Our paper provides one explanation for why this phenomenon might be happening: People value their freedom of choice, and they resent government intervention that restricts that freedom.”

Other countries do not follow the American example. They do not try to guilt trip people into eating less. They offer a more balanced view of nutrition and even emphasize that eating can be enjoyable:

But consider the discourse around nutrition in other countries. Korea’s dietary guidelines advise people to “balance what you eat with your activity; enjoy every meal, and do not skip breakfast.” Japan says to “[e]njoy snacks, confection, and beverages moderately.” Here’s Germany: “Allow plenty of time for eating and enjoy mealtimes.” And, finally, Canada: “Use terms such as 'less healthy choices' to talk about foods high in fat, sugar or salt. The ‘Less healthy choices’ should be limited but can be enjoyed at times.”

This study shows what happens when we try to regulate human behavior by instituting taboos and regulations. Instead of reducing the obesity rates, we increase them. New York concludes:

The constant instruction to stop eating bad foods in order to be healthy is not only stressful, but it also doesn’t work. As nutritional guidelines have doubled down on instructing us about what not to eat, we have also doubled down on our obesity rates.


Wm Sears said...

Since the government keeps changing its dietary recommendations on a regular basis, ignoring them would seem to be the logical thing to do.

Sam L. said...

"Sorry, but poor kids can still eat healthy".

More inaccuracies in the obesity chronicles. Today the same percentage of African American kids are obese as were obese prior to 1998. The same percentage of Hispanic Americans are obese as were obese prior to 1998. The same percentage of European Americans are obese as were prior to 1998.

So what caused the obesity 'epidemic'? In 1998 they changed the measurement of weight and overnight the numbers of those who were counted as obese doubled and nobody gained a single pound to do it. Most of those we call obese are merely overweight and most of those we call overweight are in the normal range of weight.

But there is another factor that has changed the obesity landscape since 1998. Today while the total number of European Americans in this country has stayed about the same or increased only slightly the total numbers of African Americans and Hispanics have almost doubled. Why does this matter? Because both the African Americans and Hispanics are obese at twice the rate that European Americans are and ditto for simple overweight.

So without any real increase in obesity never the less obesity in America is now "epidemic". And for the sake of this article's point since most "poor" or people on the dole are African American and Hispanics the numbers of obese in that category has greatly exceeded the general population and again without any actual increase in obesity.

If "eating healthy" could prevent or reverse obesity than obesity could easily be ended. Most obesity is genetic. You can eat fast food or whole foods and it won't matter.
#5 GoneWithThewind on 2016-02-07 10:51 (Reply)

copied from

Ares Olympus said...

Sam L, so you believe everything you read on online comments? What exactly changed in 1998?!

So its all a conspiracy, obesity data is being skewed by changing definitions?

BMI, however poor as an objective measure for health, is a fixed calculation.

sestamibi said...

"Since diet soda is sugary poison, this is an unalloyed good. Right?"

DIET soda is a sugary poison??? Well, maybe in Michael Bloomberg's world.

Ares Olympus said...

sestamibi, indeed, I hadn't heard Bloomberg complaining about diet soda versus sugary soda.

But assuming they were both included in the failed ban, while zero calorie drinks or foods leading to weight gain does seem like a contradiction, there's some evidence artificial sweetners are not helping, and some potential mechanisms considered.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years as those who didn’t drink diet soda.

...Artificial sweeteners, however, confuse our bodies and weaken the link in our brains between sweetness and calories. That, Hazuda says, can lead to weight gain and cravings for sweeter and sweeter treats.

There may be something else at work. A recent study in mice showed that artificial sweeteners actually changed the gut bacteria of mice in ways that made them vulnerable to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance — both of which can lead to weight gain. And other mice research suggests that artificial sweeteners are associated with a drop in the appetite-regulating hormone leptin, Hazuda says. Leptin is the hormone that inhibits hunger.

We can be sure of is our premodern ancestors never had access to so much sweetness we do, whether corn based, fruit based, or fake chemicals, and it is reasonable to consider we don't have the "instincts" to resist an over abundance of sweet drinks or food. Libertarians have infinite free will, but the rest of us might benefit from some help, and if getting up from a movie seat for a 16oz refill discourages drinking 128oz of soda, that might be just enough to avoid the 7th refill, or whatever.

But for the moment liberty has been assured against paternalism, along with corporate profits. What stockholder could complain about supporting companies that takes government subsidized sugar production and creates $0.05 products that can sell for $5?

Now if New York could just stop killing people for selling untaxes "onesies", that would be real liberty.

And that's the problem in a nutshell. Paternalism is all good and well, until you have to kill people to protect them.

Sam L. said...

I'm just adding a comment on the topic for you to shoot at, AE.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Michael Bloomberg is an incredibly dangerous man.

He does not believe law-abiding citizens should have the means to defend themselves.

That's all I have to say about him.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

sestamibi @February 8, 2016 at 5:42 PM:

"DIET soda is a sugary poison??? Well, maybe in Michael Bloomberg's world."

Consider that our Environmental Protection Agency classifies carbon dioxide -- a naturally-occurring molecule necessary to sustain life on our planet -- as a pollutant.

If you get your arms around that, the "sugary poison" thing seems paltry.

And he believes in the horrifying dangers of Climate Change, which means he doesn't believe the climate should change. Get your head around that one!

Get with the program: Michael Bloomberg knows what's best for you.