Discuss: Fork to Mouth

Aug 19, 2011

Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably witnessed last weekend’s debate between @DCeventjunkie (hereafter referred to as DCE) and I about the role of the federal government in solving the nation’s weight problem.  For those of you who didn’t, here’s what went down.

The fun started Saturday night, when DCE posted this: “I’m seriously considering getting into politics – those of a food kind. The govt is responsible 4 the US obesity epidemic & it’s frightful.”

Having worked on agriculture and nutrition issues for a few years now, I would never argue that the federal government has no role to play in this debate.  We should do a better job of educating people through programs like USDA extension service, the public schools (to a degree), the WIC and food stamp programs and advertising.  We should also make sure that people have access to produce and other healthy choices, by eliminating food deserts and encouraging programs like farm-to-school.

But to argue that the primary blame for the obesity epidemic in America rests on the government’s shoulders is ridiculous.  Our nation’s poundage problem is directly related to our busy lifestyles, our financial means and our own choices.  So I replied: “@dceventjunkie I’m sure USDA/FDA could do better, but people choose what food they put into their mouths, not the government.”

From there, things became a little…intense. DCE responded “@CapHillStyle B.S. Who makes what affordable? Who determines what is available for us to consume? Who SELLS the public False info/stats??”

At this point, I should have walked away.  Because any person who believes that the government is in the business of stocking grocery store shelves or that there is a vast conspiracy to provide people with false information (even though it’s usually the gov’t funding the research that determines which foods cause cancer, heart disease, etc.) is not going to change their mind because of little old me.  But I didn’t, and the debate continued for a full day.  You can read the whole thing on my Twitter page, if you’re so inclined.

I am by no means a Ron Paul-supporting, strict-constructionist Libertarian.  But I do believe that at some point, no matter how much education, access and warning you provide, people make their own choices.  And this is especially true about the food we put in our bodies.

Show me the person who doesn’t know that fried foods, fast food, junk food and sugared sodas are bad for their health.  Show me the person who doesn’t know that the calorie counts and nutritional information are published on the back of the box/can/package.  Show me the overweight person who hasn’t heard that the “secret” to weight loss is to eat less and move more.

That being said, it is hard to do better.  It takes time and energy to cook a meal, and at the end of a long day, it is the last thing you want to do.  Buying healthier food takes effort and discipline, and if you’re on a budget, it takes a willingness (and the time) to clip coupons and find the best deals.  And it is damn hard to tell children that they can’t have the sugary cereal that they saw on TV or that they need to eat their vegetables.  If it were easy, we’d all be pillars of health with normal BMIs.

But as bad as our eating and exercise habits have become over the past two decades, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Most major grocery store chains (including Wal-Mart and Target) now stock healthier options and organic products.  We’re also learning more about where our food comes from and that we need more fiber, fewer preservatives and more vegetables.  And while government does have a role to play in continuing and encouraging this change, the most powerful player in the food game is the consumer.  

People are demanding better choices, more nutritional information and improved access and the retailers are listening.  Because the stores will stock what they can sell, and if people start asking for organic products, gluten-free products, lower-sodium products, etc., the stores will stock them.  In the nutrition arena, your power as a consumer far outweighs your power as a voter because it’s much easier to make a company change than it is to make the government change.

The government can help fight the obesity epidemic.  Local communities can provide incentives to retailers to move into “food deserts,” like DC’s Ward 8.  Schools can bring back home economics and serve healthier options in their cafeterias.  WIC benefits and food stamps should come with mandatory nutrition and cooking classes.  And USDA Extension Service should be better funded so that they can do more outreach and education. 

Government can educate, identify weaknesses and incentivize to provide access, but we can’t force people to eat better and we can’t mandate more hours in the day.  Our power ends when you choose, because nothing we do can override your personal responsibility.  And when you choose to buy a product or order off a menu, you are in control of what you are eating, not the government.


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  1. It IS hard to do better!! Decision Fatigue – we're inundated. And by the time we get to the grocery store at night, it's hard to make the right decision. And it's even harder on a tight budget when you're cost conscious all day long: https://ohsugarplease.blogspot.com/2011/08/decision-fatigue-or-why-i-cannot-be.html

  2. P says:

    I think, like so many things, this is an incredibly complicated issue. There are so many cultural and physical issues that contribute to the way we eat. I found this article from NPR interesting (https://goo.gl/fcACL) – it breaks down just how expensive it is to eat and follow USDA nutritional guidelines. It is exponentially more difficult and expensive, and (because of the way our bodies are wired to appreciate taste) less appealing to eat healthily. One blog (https://goo.gl/FrhZK) written by a foster-mom gives a great example of this – she was excited to cook her foster-kids garden fresh gourmet meals, but they rejected them because their bodies were so used to processed foods and fast food.

  3. SC says:

    Obesity isn't caused by the government setting food prices. It's caused by the growing wealth of the nation in general – you'll the patterns of development in many countries across the globe that the richer a country grows, the people get to eat better, and they tend to gain more weight.

    The obesity problem is also a problem of lifestyle. I spent a decade living abroad, where people were more active in walking to places, driving less, and simply buying fresh produce and meats and seafood from vendors at open-air markets instead of buying processed foods for the same price in an indoor supermarket.

    I interned at the USDA last summer, so I know that the USDA has been doing plenty of outreach and research onto cheaper, healthier food. But food prices are set by the market, the retailers, and not the USDA, unless it's subsidizing certain staple crops. What really needs to happen is for people to consider buying local fresh produce, which is often cheaper than supermarkets, more delicious, and you can ask the farmer about their farming practices. DC has several farmer's markets, all within Metro station walking distances.

    You're right, people make their own choices to eat what sort of foods. Can't afford organic veggies? Grow your own. Live in the city? You can still grow your own food, there's been plenty of articles on urban farming, and it's not expensive either if you want to grow some tomatoes of your own.

  4. S says:

    I definitely agree that no matter what the government does, people are still going to make their own decisions.

    One thing I have noticed in some cities (so I'm wondering if it's local-government related) is restaurants posting caloric information on the menus. I was actually surprised in a Starbucks to see that what I thought might be a better choice compared to the cookies, scones and cupcakes was actually the highest in calories: the walnut bread. Maybe this was silly of me, but I think in places like that and Panera – posting calories has really helped inform my decisions when it's not always obvious what is the best decision. I think other places should do this too and it will hold them accountable to begin lowering the calories in the food they serve. This might be an area where I would like the government to get involved.

  5. Nina says:

    Government subsidies are an issue, but I hate when fat shamers resort to “government corn subsidies!” because the world is so much more complex than that.

  6. Kelsey says:

    But government corn subsidies are the reason why most processed foods consist entirely of various corn derivatives. and why our meat is not as healthy as it should be. Corn-feed beef loses so much of its nutritional content, yet livestock producers find it much cheaper to use corn feed. Who is fat shaming?

  7. Brian Boitano says:

    @S. The nutritional content labeling was part of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act. Your wish is Uncle Sam's command!

  8. amy b.s. says:

    yes, obviously, there is a role to play to some extent. but at what point do people just have to start taking responcibilty for their own lives and actions? it's so tiring.

  9. Sarah says:

    Second the support for nutritional labeling. I lived in NYC this summer, and while it's a little dispiriting to see that a serving of some kinds of fries at a baseball game has the amount of calories I should have for the entire day, it did make me order something else!

    On the difficulties of decision-making, see –
    Certainly not all of it is new, but it's an interesting read.

  10. Montana says:

    The key to heallthy eating and healthy weight — everything in moderation. The government should have no role in this, nor should our tax dollars.

  11. Emily says:

    I agree, and I really enjoy reading your blog. Everyone is always trying to blame someone else for their failures: parents, the government, their troubled childhood, etc. Life is hard. Suck it up, put down the donut, & walk away – preferably on a treadmill set at a steep incline.

  12. L says:

    Certainly I think there is a role for the government to play (imo probably a larger one than my conservative friends want). That said, as a slightly overweight person, it's the rationale that we are subject to some conspiracy is bullshit. I choose to eat what I want and I fully accept the consequences of it. There are quite a few people who don't have the luxury of shopping for fresh produce/healthier options and certainly we can make it easier for them, but bottom line we all have a choice.

    Americans' lifestyles have shifted DRASTICALLY over the past few decades, with work requiring more and more out of everyone. It's a hell of a lot harder to purchase and cook a healthy meal or hit the gym after working 12+ hours.

  13. Zoe says:

    I believe that the government and their close relationships with large argibusinesses (see Monsanto or Purdue for example) have a huge impact on the obesity epidemic. The federal government cannot solve all our woes but it could make choices a lot more fair and more available to all people, not just the wealthy few. I ultimately believe everyone is responsible for their own decisions but I also believe we live in a country that should strive to make it so all people have responsible choices at their disposal and the education to know how to make those decisions. Right now, America is failing at that.

  14. Zoe says:

    Sorry Purdue University that meant to be Perdue!

  15. The Dash says:

    Not much to add except a full-throated endorsement of the Belle position in this argument. Yes, corn subsidies and a close relationship to agri-business play a role in poor nutrition and obesity, but everyone still has choices. They may not be perfect choices (inconvenience of cooking, paying a little more for quality or limiting yourself to local/seasonal products), but there are negatives to both sides of the coin.

    Knowledge is power – I don't believe Food Inc. was produced by the government. If you care about this stuff, go tell people about it. Don't wait on the government to do it.

  16. SR says:

    I think another issue that has yet to be brought up are the very lucrative contracts between food manufacturers/ beverage companies and the public school system. Yes, we have choices as adults at the grocery store. However, if you're a kid standing in front of a vending machine or in the school lunch line and the only healthy item is a granola bar packed with sugar or a burger and fries and pizza slices, we have a major problem.

    Healthy eating habits must start young and we have to acknowledge that kids in many school districts on reduced price lunches may be on a poor eating path for the rest of their lives because of what public schools are giving them. I don't see where sugary drinks filled with high fructose corn syrup fit into any growing child's lifestyle. Looking back at the food offered in my public school in the northeast, the food was terrible – no fresh produce, mostly heavily processed frozen pizzas/ chicken breasts stuffed with bright orange and yellow cheese, and high-sodium side items like fries/ tater tots. I wouldn't touch these items with a ten-foot pole now and my mom quickly realized I was better off with a packed lunch (she had the time and we had the money to pack a pretty well-rounded delicious lunch every day which I now see as a luxury for many families).

    There's always a tradeoff – in this case, we're offering kids low-quality cheap food but we're going to be paying in the long run for their Type 2 diabetes treatment and meds.

  17. P says:

    Montana and Emily – If you are going to participate in this debate, then stop simplifying the situation. If it was that easy, then why are a third of American adults and 17% of American children obese (not just overweight, but obese)? These numbers have huge consequences and costs for our nation. Try contributing something more valuable to the conversation than advice to “suck it up.”

  18. Good grief. I'm completely with you on this, Belle. The person most responsible (MOST, I'm not saying other things like govt don't play a role) for your weight is you. I do have many gripes about the way govt deals with agriculture, particularly the chicken industry and the beef industry (I'm looking at you, BLM!). But obesity? Yes, the govt has some responsibility and could do some things better, but all in all parents and individuals have to shoulder most of the blame here.

  19. Montana says:

    To the Unregistered “P”
    I am not having a debate with anyone, but apparently you are. Belle gives us the opportunity to make comments,which I appreciate, you should respect everyone's opinions. Nothing I posted was offensive. Learn some manners!

  20. Zoe says:

    I think this overall debate needs to be centered more around health and not just weight. A skinny person can have a myriad of health issues related to their diet and lack of exercise. Even if a low income person manages to stay at a healthy weight, it does not mean they are living well. With pesticides, antibiotics, hormones etc. in our foods, someone needs to step up and monitor these things. It does not seem as though the huge agribusinesses are interested in this as it does not make them money. We need the government's help on this one.

  21. nicole says:

    the government can't–and shouldn't be tasked with–controlling what people purchase or choose to eat. what they CAN and SHOULD be doing is stepping up and stopping the beef and 'factory-farmed' meat industry players from regulating themselves. there needs to be penalties for those who fail to pass inspections. and actions taken if things don't change. we're so far away from a point in time where people will stop craving fast food and unhealthy fried options. but why not shift the focus to the production of ethical meat? fair treatment should be given to the employees and the animals with an eye on the negative long-term effects factory farming has on the environment. but we're so far from that happening. for now, monsanto will continue to own nature.

  22. Belle says:

    P-Obesity isn't caused by just what we eat. Kids today no longer play outside. I have a dozen cousins in the 6-18yr range, and when I go to their houses, I am shocked by how much time they spend on the computer, playing video games and watching TV. They don't play sports except in summer, and they'd rather be on the iPad than doing anything else.

    You can't say that the sedentary lifestyle of many Americans, especially children isn't just as to blame as what they eat for their weight problems.

  23. Not Mark Bittman says:

    I recently sent US PIRG away from my front door empty handed as they were looking for sigatures for a petition to “end the tax subsidies for high fructose corn syrup” manufacturers….because it will end obesity in poor areas. I find that whole line of thinking (like many of the previous commenters) to be completely bogus. I did not go into medicine because I do not have the patience to say “put down the fork” in a nice way to my patients. Plenty of healthy foods cost less than the processed crap that is making American's fat. It's about the individual choices many people make that lead to obesity, and nothing else.

    Now, if I could just find a way to not pay for their (or smoker's) health care costs with my tax dollars (or increased private premiums).

  24. Brittany says:

    People are definitely responsible for their exercise habits and a lot of the obesity, but food that is cheaper is often much worse for you. The government heavily, heavily subsidizes corn so it's easy to create corn syrup products. 2 liters of soda is much cheaper than water or juice. Sugary snacks are much cheaper than fresh, organic food.

    If the government were to subsidize dairy farmers more or organic farmers more, eating healthier would be easier and cheaper.

  25. e-liz says:

    @ Brittany: A-men. The amount of things made from “corn” (not edible, delicious corn-on-the-cob corn) is shocking and so widespread, I don't even think most people know that what they're consuming comes from this inedible “corn”. What if subsidies were given to people who raised cattle humanely? Those cows could then eat the grass they are designed to eat instead of the cheaper-to-grow-and-produce “corn” that they're not set up to digest, from a very basic biological standpoint. It all goes back to the need for government regulation of the meat industry, which, for far too long, has been allowed to police itself.

  26. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    Short comment. I'm w/ you Belle.

  27. Ellie says:

    Completely agree with Zoe & Brittany. It's very easy for most people to say it comes down to personal responsibility and making your own choices. But if you literally only have $10 to spend on food for your family for a day, you can be as “responsible” as you want and it won't buy you a plate of whole grains and organic vegetables. “Corn food” is cheap because the government pays for it. Urban gardening sounds great in theory, and I love having a couple pots on my balcony. Can it feed me, let alone a family? No. And I'm lucky enough to have a balcony. Most of the people facing these kinds of dilemmas every day don't have the luxuries we say they should choose.

    Grocery store access is a whole other question. If you only have corner stores from which to buy dinner, the closest thing to a vegetable you'll find is a pack of sunflower seeds.

  28. Belle says:

    Ellie-I addressed the grocery store access issue in the post. The poor face special circumstances that the government should help with. But obesity is by no means limited to the poor. More prevalent, but not limited.

    It's easy (and accurate) to say that the poor often can't afford healthier, but what is the excuse for those who can?

  29. Meghan says:

    Belle – I love reading your blog (thanks for all the style tips!), but this is the first time I've felt a need to comment. I've read the comments so I'll try not to rehash what has already been said (your readers are a smart group), so here it goes.

    I agree with you that, in the end, it is a person's decision as to what they put in their mouth, but the obesity issue is far more complex than that. Over the past four years, I have lost (and kept off) 50 unhealthy pounds. I am proud of this fact, but I was disappointed in myself with how little I knew about food (and I'm from what many would consider to be a “background of means.”) It takes work, a lot of hard work, to be healthy. We should be encouraging a healthy lifestyle from birth. Sadly, the skills and knowledge needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle are often not taught.

    The obesity issue goes beyond food policy and personal choice – it has a lot to do with our culture, educational system, and myriad of other things which influence our collective weight. We drive instead of walk. We eat out a lot. We have little knowledge of what it means to be healthy. It goes on and on.

    What I find most problematic is that most people don't know what the widely available nutritional information means. Yes, you can read the words and sort of get an idea, but if you don't educate yourself it's hard to understand just what it means to be on a 2,000 (or less) calorie diet. I think what we should be doing is teaching basic nutrition starting from a young age. Everyone is different and how their body reacts to food and activities can influence their weight. It doesn't help to know the calorie count of a muffin if you can't put that information into a greater context.

    In an ideal world we would all have access to healthy food, choose activity over loafing, and know how to eat a balanced diet. Government plays a large role in all of these matters – from food and transportation subsidies, to what is taught in our schools. I'm not afraid of government making food and health policy (I always say I'm so liberal, I'm French), but I do often question why we continue to support programs and subsidies that foster the obesity epidemic. If we could find a way to get everyone healthy while getting government off our plate, I'm for it. But I think the first thing we need to do is find a way to teach our kids basic nutrition and health skills.

    This is an extremely complicated matter, and I am encouraged by the amount of momentum the issue has gained. I just hope we can make progress as a whole country. It's hard to be healthy as a individual in a community that encourages bad decisions. This is a nation wide problem, and we have to work together to fix it. Yes, individuals need to make better decisions, but so do communities and our government.

  30. A says:

    I don't know, Belle–it's oversimplifying DCE's position to suggest that there's a “conspiracy” to make Americans unhealthy. Rather, the government is alarmingly close to many of the companies that put food into the market. And this debate is ignoring the poor to an alarming degree. Trust me, my family has been there: when both parents are working 70+ hours a week, they're too tired and busy to cook dinner when they come home, grocery store veggies are too expensive…fattening foods are sometimes the only option. Not to mention all the rural poor who live in “food deserts” where they have no access to grocery stores whatsoever. Instead of making statements like this:

    “It's easy (and accurate) to say that the poor often can't afford healthier, but what is the excuse for those who can?”

    We should really ask why the poor (40+ million Americans and 21% of all children) are in a position where they have no choice but to eat unhealthily.

  31. Melinda says:

    I think educating the consumer should be up to the consumer. I find it quite sad that the government has to use our tax dollars to mandate that we see calorie counts on vending machines (there is a regulation, yes. I'm not sure if it has passed yet). Just building on a previous comment to this post, if a consumer goes into Starbucks and doesn't know the Walnut loaf (or whatever it is called) is a healthier alternative to, say, a marble loaf then I classify that as a personal problem. Most of this is nothing more than common sense. Especially in a time in this country where our debt has just been downgraded, and a budget really needs to be balanced, there are more important things I can think of in terms of what our tax dollars could be going to.

    All in all, I simply believe individuals should be fully accountable to their decisions and should actually make their own decisions instead of letting the government tell you what to do. Because at the end of the day, government involvement in such a matter is exactly that.

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