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I’ve recently challenged paternalism supporters to tell me, if the most recent headline paternalism that bans Happy Meals in San Francisco does not constitute taking us down the slippery slope, then what would? Matt Steinglass at the Economist has responded to this challenge by accepting it’s legitimacy, and reversing it, but not answering it. Granted, speculating what people will decide the government should crack down on next is a tricky game. I mean who would have guessed that Happy Meals were on the chopping block? But from the logic of this ban, we can see a wide range of policies the future might hold.

First, lets look at the logic of this policy. Here is how Steinglass makes the case:

Now, not every parent objects to their children eating unhealthy fast food. But I do, and there are a lot of other parents like me, especially in places like San Francisco. For such parents, the Happy Meal represents an effort by some adults to profitably exploit and exacerbate the tensions in other adults’ parent-child relations over food.

So what are other policies by which some adults profitably exploit and exacerbate the tensions in other adults’ parent-child relations over food?

First note that we don’t need a one-to-one relationship between that which is attracting the children in the first place -in this case a toy- and something that is unhealthy -in this case unhealthy food. Matt can actually get a Happy Meal with chicken McNuggets, 1% milk, and slices of apple with low-far caramel dip. In fact, at 390 calories, 32% of which come from fat, McDonalds will be able to sell this food with the toy after the ban, which only prevents Happy Meals with more than 600 calories and 35% of the calories from fat. So it’s not like the only way for Matt to get this toy for his kids is to buy them the “cheap Jumbo McFattyburger”. McDonald’s has given them a relatively healthy option that allows parents to cave into their children on the toy but not on lunch. What more do you want parents? Must we hold your hand the whole way through raising your children, cordoning off everything you don’t have the will to tell them they can’t have?

Given the nature of the justifications for this policy -protecting parents from having to tell their kids no- what would be logical extensions of it?

Well without leaving McDonalds there’s some obvious ones. For one thing, the playland probably draws kids as often as the toys do. So new McDonalds could be banned from being built with playlands. Along the same lines,  fast food restaurants could be banned from being near places where children play in the first place, like parks and schools. I know this one has been called for before, and I’m not sure, but it may even be in affect in some places.

Making fast food less attractive may protect parents when they happen to be near a McDonalds with their kids, but it doesn’t protect them from having McDonalds reach out to children in the first place and getting it into their heads that their food and toys are awesome. If you’re going to stop this problem, it must be at the root. One way to do this is to ban advertising of fast food targeted at children. This would probably start with children specific magazines and TV shows, but move to a general ban.

However, these policies only target fast food, and we know that kids beg for unhealthy food all over the place, not just there. So let’s look at the grocery store.

One obvious example is banning candy from checkout lines. Sure many stores have aisles that are candy free for just this purpose, but McDonalds has a healthy lunch option as well.

Another thing that could be done is to counteract the behavioral economics and marketing used by grocery stores and food companies to target children. Unhealthy food that children like, for instance sugary cereals, could be required to be placed on top shelves where it’s harder for children to see and reach for them. More extreme than this would be to ban any cartoon characters from unhealthy food containers. I’m pretty sure many people would take a bullet for Cap’n Crunch and those elves from Rice Crispies, so the bar for unhealthy would be set pretty high… at first.

Eventually there could be a regulatory agency that has to approve all foods to ensure that no behavioral economics or marketing wizardry draws children to it whatsoever.

In addition to how stuff is sold, anything that is enumerated on a nutrition label could be regulated. We know that portion size is a problem, so maximum portion sizes could be set. Also you might also see maximum calories for single serving foods like hot pockets and candy bars.

In order to prevent an outcry from adults there may be a two-track regulation where food is categorized either as “mostly for adults” or “mostly for children”. Foods that are “mostly for children” will be regulated more strictly and on many dimensions, while “mostly for adults” remain freer … at first. Eventually all foods could fall to the more draconian regulations as two-track regulation fails because parents will just buy unhealthy “mostly for adults” food for their children.

If you think setting the maximum number of calories and other nutritional measures for every kind of food seems absurd then you should read the Institute of Medicine report on salt regulations, which pretty much suggests doing this this for sodium content.

Many of these suggestions probably seem so extreme as to be unbelievable. But they seem extreme from the vantage point of where we are on the slippery slope. The farther down we go and the more accustomed we become to these sorts of things then the less and less radical the currently extreme examples will seem. I’m not predicting all of these will happen everywhere, but some of these, or things like these, will be pushed for, and some of them will be put into place.

My question to paternalism supporters is which of these things would be ok with you? And by what basis do you reject them but approve the Happy Meal regulations? To those on the fence about paternalism, or ok with the happy meal ban but wary of more strict regulations, pay attention to the answer your paternalism allies give to these questions; as you may someday find yourself on the other end of this argument.

There is a very interesting article at the Atlantic from David Just and Brian Wansink from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. They discuss their work on improving healthy eating in school cafeterias using the subtle wizardry of behavioral economics. There have been some impressive results:

One school in upstate New York was able to increase consumption of salads by close to 300 percent by simply moving their salad bar six feet from the wall and placing it near a natural bottleneck in the check-out line. Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by moving the apples and oranges from stainless steel bins into a well-lit and attractive basket.

It is encouraging to see behavioral economics being put into creative use like this. The authors argue that “It is difficult to teach a high school student how to make healthy choices in the real world if only escarole and tofu on are on the school lunch menu”. But is this teaching them to choose better or tricking them into choosing better? After all, if behavior is so amenable to subtle tricks like this then what hope can there be that any behavioral changes will actually last? I can’t tell if articles like this should make us more or less hopeful. Yes, the good scientists here are making a difference, but are we really so impressionable?

When the Institute of Medicine recommended broad, draconian regulation of salt last year, I pushed back against the idea, one might say, obsessively. Now, via Marion Nestle, comes a new paper in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition arguing that the current level of sodium intake is not a problem for the population. The article comes with an accompanying editorial titled  “Science trumps politics: urinary sodium data challenge US dietary sodium guideline” that closes with this appeal:

The analyses of extensive measurements of 24-h UNaV, which these 2 reports have collected from the medical literature over the past 5 decades, are compelling. They provide plausible, scientific evidence of a “normal” range of dietary sodium intake in humans that is consistent with our understanding of the established physiology of sodium regulation in humans. This scientific evidence, not political expediency, should be the foundation of future government policies, thus respecting the known and unknown scientific complexities surrounding sodium’s role in health and disease. Guidance for sodium intake should target specific populations for whom a lower sodium intake is possibly beneficial. Such an approach would avoid broad proscriptive guidelines for the general population for whom the safety and efficacy are not yet defined. An appropriate next step is not to lower the sodium guideline further.

You can find my previous coverage of salt regulation here, herehereherehere, and here.

If integrating a school garden into curriculum can help teach kids subject matter better and get them to eat healthier, then I’m all for it. Likewise, I think improving school lunches and making them healthier are something worth spending money on. People like TV chef Jaime Oliver and school garden maven Alice Waters who are working to push these issues into mainstream deserve praise. Unfortunately, it seems that these genuinely useful policies and programs are being bogged down with wasteful progressive ideas.

Case in point is this paragraph from a recent Atlantic piece on Alice Waters:

…Waters recruited chef Ann Cooper (a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady) to revamp what was on the school lunch menus in Berkeley, which then reflected typical school-lunch fare. As Director of Nutrition Services, Cooper banned processed foods and started making everything from scratch. She sought local produce, dairy, and bread, and, as much as possible, organic foods, too.

The first problem here is teaching kids to spend any time or money on organic foods, or spending public funds on such things. This may be good for the earth, but as several  comprehensive literature reviews have shown, organic foods aren’t any healthier. Here’s liberal wonk and foodie Ezra Klein summing up the evidence:

The most recent data on this come from a massive literature review commissioned by Britain’s Food Safety Agency (their version of our FDA, essentially) and conducted by Britain’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They concluded that a “systematic review of literature over 50 years finds no evidence for superior nutritional content of organic produce.”

Local is useful so long as it means more fresh, as fresh foods deliver more nutrition than frozen. But local for the sake of local is the kind of thing you worry about when you’ve got time and money to spend on luxuries; it’s not an important value to instill in kids, and especially not poor kids.

Waters and her organization are touting a new study showing that school gardens get kids to eat more vegetables. This isn’t surprising, but how much does it impact their lives once they graduate? Are future blue collar workers really going to take the time to grow themselves vegetable gardens in window boxes outside their apartments? A lot of working people, like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias, frequently don’t have time for fresh vegetables. Like Matt, many people have to teach themselves late in life how to make quick delicious snacks out of frozen vegetables. This would be a much more valuable lesson for poor kids then how to select the freshest kale at your local organic farmers market, or even more ridiculously, how to grow your own.

From every description of these programs I’ve read they have an obsession with local, fresh, organic, and growing your own food. The obsession should be on quick, easy, delicious, and inexpensive. These sets of descriptors are damn near antonyms.

If you can get kids to eat and prefer frozen vegetables then you’ve got a sustainable improvement in diet and nutrition. If you get them to like fresh organic vegetables they’ve grown in the garden or bought at the farmers market, then you’ve temporarily instilled in them the tastes of upper middle class people with enough time and money on their hands for such luxuries.

If people like Alice Waters and Jaime Oliver want wider support for heathy schools movements they need to purge them of the wasteful upper-class liberal obsession over local, fresh, and organic foods, and instead focus them on practical and sustainable lessons like how to prepare frozen vegetables cheaply, quickly, and deliciously.

It used to be that daily mental activity was seen as a free lunch in terms of helping to delay dementia. This certainly has an intuitive appeal: exercising your brain will keep it healthy. It also sort of seems fair, in a way, that those who use their brains the most are less likely to lose the capacity to, well, use their brains, just as those who have a more physical lifestyle maintain their physical strength longer in life. However, new research suggests that things may not be so simple, nor so rosy for the thinking man:

According to Wilson, mentally stimulating activities may somehow enhance the brain’s ability to function relatively normally despite the buildup of lesions in the brain associated with dementia. However, once they are diagnosed with dementia, people who have a more mentally active lifestyle are likely to have more brain changes related to dementia compared to those without a lot of mental activity. As a result, those with more mentally active lifestyles may experience a faster rate of decline once dementia begins.

Before you replace Marginal Revolution with TMZ on your RSS feed and commit yourself to a life of not thinking, keep in mind that mental exercises do still appear to delay dementia, it’s just that once onset occurs it comes quicker.

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