Monday, November 24, 2014

The FDA mandates calorie counts on menus. In other news, world still getting fatter

I eat fast food perhaps once every three months. When I do, I break all my usual health rules. I skip my workout, order the biggest portions of everything and then happily enjoy every bite of my heart-stopping meal. One thing I never do on these rare cheat days, however, is fret about how many calories I consume.

But the federal government knows better than I do, and will soon mandate that chain restaurants, vending machines, grocery stores, pizza places and even movie theaters display calorie information on their menus.

This calorie count proposal, like the similar state and city level proposals before it, will fail. Consumers know before they walk into the restaurant that they're about to eat junk food, and there is no reason to think that helpful suggestions from the FDA will make them slimmer.

Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of Americans pay attention to calorie counts in restaurants and grocery stores. There's really no way to know if those figures are accurate, since all the researchers can do is ask people if they look at the calorie counts. But keeping in mind that survey studies like these are usually inaccurate, especially because of self-report bias, I'm willing to bet that people who participate in these studies are lying. Moreover, even if consumers are utilizing calorie counts, they're not eating less, according to researchers who looked at what they actually purchased before and after the calorie counts were implemented.

So we don't have the foggiest idea of how many people are utilizing the calorie information on menus, and nobody's eating any less while we try to answer that question. But even if those two conditions were met, we still wouldn't make a dent in the obesity statistics, because the problem is more complex than that.

A big salad and a small candy bar may contain the same number of calories, but one is much healthier than the other. The nutrients in the food we eat are just as important as the amount of food we eat when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight; the studies are very clear about this now. You'd have to be an idiot to believe otherwise. And since we're talking about a federal initiative, that's probably a fitting description for the people who are pushing to add calorie counts to menus in movie theaters.

But the health mullahs have research, too. They're particularly fond of one study conducted in Seattle which found that some restaurants began using lower-calorie ingredients after implementing calorie counts. The declines, though, were very modest and the study only looked at restaurants in one city. Generalizing the results to the entire country, as the FDA is doing, is inappropriate.

When we do look at the data on obesity around the world, we find that countries tend to get fatter as they get wealthier. The wealthiest countries are the ones with the best health care and education and the most developed health bureaucracies, because they can afford them. If the issue was educating people about healthy eating, America would be the slimmest, sexiest country in the world. Clearly the issue isn't lack of access to information. We all know that cheetos make us fat.

There's really only two ways consumers' eating habits are going to change. We either have to pay them to eat healthier foods, as political scientist Eric Oliver has pointed out, or we have to force them to change their behavior. That can only be done by restricting people's choices--through heavy taxes, product bans and tighter regulations on advertising. The latter option is not tenable just yet on the federal level, but it's probably coming soon, as the calorie count initiative suggests.

Despite their protests that they just want people to make informed choices, public health advocates are not above forcing people to change. These issues always start out as discussions about how we get consumers to eat healthier, drink less or quit smoking, and they almost always end as political campaigns to restrict personal freedom. It's never just about the science.

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