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Thoughts on the Food Police

I consider myself an independent, a libertarian, a free thinker, and sometimes even a radical. On some issues, I lean towards the Democratic position (gay rights, civil liberties, legalization of marijuana), while on other issues, I lean toward the Republican (gun rights, limited government, terrorism). On many issues, my own views don’t align with either of the major political parties and are based on my own understanding of issues, (climate change, energy policy, military spending, taxation, health care). Then, there are some issues that I consider unimportant (immigration), that I don’t know much about (trade policy, financial regulations), or that I don’t feel qualified to judge (abortion).

There are many problems, however, that I consider beyond the scope of what any government could or should ever attempt to solve. Some problems, like obesity, don’t have easy, straightforward answers. We don’t fully understand all the factors at the genetic level that contribute to a person’s tendency to gain or not to gain weight, and we don’t entirely understand how those factors combine with environmental factors like diet and exercise to contribute to a certain outcome. It’s often the case that two people with very similar diets will end up with very different body shapes, weights, and builds. That’s genetics. Figuring out all the permutations of genetics is going to take time. We only sequenced the human genome about twenty years ago. It will take many more decades if not centuries before we understand what each gene contributes to what health factors. I don’t understand much about it, other than the reality is a lot more complicated than Mendel’s pea plants.

Most of us are familiar with the monk Gregor Mendel and his pea plant experiments. It’s fairly standard, or at least it was in my day, to begin the study of genetics with his simple experiments. He was, after all, far ahead of his time. He imagined the mechanism for evolutionary theory decades before Darwin articulated the theory itself. Darwin himself was unaware of Mendel’s work. There’s one problem with this view. Most experts who understand statistics believe Mendel fudged his results. He also chose a notably small number of plant characteristics to experiment on, and his experiments only succeeded on that one pea plant species. Mendel got the credit because he had the idea first, regardless of his questionable methodology. Some genetic disorders are as simple as Mendel’s pea plants, like cystic fibrosis, or sickle cell disease. Most things however, even things as simple as skin color, hair color, and eye color, are not simple at all. Most factors, in fact, are not simple at all. Until the theory of evolution, which prompted scientists to actually look for factors of inheritance, Mendel’s work was ignored, and it gathered dust for half a century before being rediscovered.. The simple truth is that Mendel cut corners, maybe without even consciously realizing it. History tends to forgive people when they turn out to be right, regardless of how wrong their methods may be. I know I wandered off on a tangent there, but I love history, because of the lessons it can teach us. What better way to learn than examining ourselves. In this case, the lesson is that there’s always a temptation to cut corners, but history will forgive you, if you get results.

Nowhere is the temptation to cut corners greater than in the halls of government, where every minor event is drummed up into a civilizational crisis, and every blemish on our society is a plague to be relentlessly eliminated. A government can look at a problem like obesity from what they might call a macro level. They can gather statistical data from tax records, surveys, censuses, Medicare and Medicaid claims and expenditures. etc. and learn a lot about America’s eating, exercise habits, and healthcare. They can then take that data and draw statistical conclusions, figure out what foods are ‘causing’ the obesity epidemic, figure out what medical problems are related to obesity, and much more. You can draw all kinds of scientifically sound conclusions when looking at all that data. That’s where the modern dogma of the low fat diet came about. Pretty much everything we know about eating healthy originated from data like this. There’s just one problem. It’s not at all simple. One can look at all that data, and still not make a causal statement such as fast food hamburgers cause heart disease. It isn’t that simple. One hamburger isn’t going to guarantee a heart attack. Neither is one hamburger a week, or one hamburger a day. The only thing that we can say truthfully and responsibly is that these things contribute to heart disease, that people who eat lots of fatty foods have an elevated risk for heart disease. That’s it. We can’t put a percentage on it. We can’t say how it relates to other factors like genetics, exercise, or whatever else. It’s possible, indeed, it’s almost certain that there’s a few people out of the seven or so billion humans who could easily eat hamburgers at every meal and never have a heart attack. These guidelines are helpful in so far as they allow us to make educated choices about what we eat, but diet isn’t destiny. Neither is genetics. It’s not simple. It’s complicated.

Politicians, however, like things to be simple. They want problems that are easy to explain and easy to solve. They want to get credit for solving those problems. That’s what gets them elected in the short term, and gets streets and buildings named after them in the long term. That’s why we get government trying to restrict individual’s choice for the sake of public health.

One of the first targets was school lunches. The schools are an easy target, because kids aren’t yet smart enough to understand their lunch as a political issue, and the government already controls public schools. Since I left school, the trend has been towards encouraging (read forcing) ‘healthier’ menu items on school lunches. I know this is going to make me sound like a grumpy old man, but so be it. When I was a kid, the lunches served in school looked like cheaper versions of the food everybody ate every day. I didn’t like it, so I didn’t eat it. I either packed a lunch or just skipped lunch entirely. My parents learned fairly early on that ‘eat it or you’ll go to bed hungry’, wouldn’t work on me. The first time that was offered, I cheerfully accepted and went to my room to play. My mom showed up some time later and asked if I wanted a peanut butter sandwich. I recall my great confusion because this wasn’t part of the earlier agreement. Point is, if I didn’t like it, I didn’t eat it, period. When the previous presidential administration introduced new health guidelines for students, the results were predictable. The cost of the lunches increased, and the number of kids eating them decreased. Anybody surprised by that result? No, didn’t think so. Given the choice, most kids are going to eat what they like, or not. If they have another option, they’ll take it. They’ll sneak a snack cake from home in their pocket or maybe some peanut butter crackers. They’ll pick out the few things they like and toss the rest in the garbage. Some will probably skip lunch entirely. Is this result an improvement over how things were before? Does that justify the cost? Who really benefits most from school lunch food police; the kids, the schools,, the parents, or the politicians who, above all, want to take credit for solving problems?

It doesn’t stop there, though. The food police are expanding their crusade anywhere they can get a legislative toehold. In addition to the numerous sanitary and labor regulations that restaurant owners must endure, there are now cities adding to that with regulations on nutrition, bans on certain foods, and limitations on portion size. It’s not entirely a new phenomenon. We had a crusade in the 80’s to eliminate saturated fats from fast food and from our kitchens. These were largely replaced with trans fats like Crisco and margarine. Then we figured out trans fats were actually worse, so we had to have another crusade to undo the harmful effects of the first crusade. Those who know the history of the actual crusades may recognize some uncomfortable similarities. Crusades, whether against heathens or hamburgers, tend to end badly, but we never seem to learn the lesson. There was a time when cigarette smoking was considered healthy and companies advertised how smoking would make you thinner, and there’s actually some decent science behind that assertion (nicotine is a fairly effective appetite suppressant). One has to wonder if the decline in smoking over the past half century hasn’t contributed to the obesity epidemic? Maybe we should all start vaping. For those who don’t know, Vaping or e-cigarettes essentially deliver the same nicotine without the tars. Some of them (the cheapest kinds) do still contain some levels of some of the bad chemicals as regular cigarettes, but no sane person who knows anything about pharmaceutical science is going to say that e-cigarettes are anywhere near as bad as regular ones. Maybe we should go a different route and put nicotine in the water. We’ve already set the precedent with the fluoride that combats tooth decay? Why not add some appetite suppressing nicotine. We all eat less. Price of food goes down. More food for the poor. Less obesity. What’s not to like? I’m sure if some politician thought it would get a highway or a library named after him, it would suddenly seem like a great idea.

I know I’ve been rather harsh to the public health experts, government regulators, and talking heads who advocate for these types of policys. I’ve cracked a few jokes at their expense. I know they aren’t bad people. Some of them probably have completely pure intentions. They may well be better human beings than I am. I’ve never been particularly good at doing good. I’m good at thinking, writing, living frugally, and otherwise minding my own business. I understand the reasoning of the leaders. They probably do understand that they’ll never be able to point out any of the people their trans-fat ban will save, but they’re convinced they saved lives. Their reasoning is not wrong, at least not at the collective, macro level. The problem is that in order to get those collective results, they have to restrict individual choice. If everybody has unfettered access to bad foods, some people will abuse it, and they’ll get sick, and that’s bad, so let’s restrict people’s choices for their own good. The unstated implication is that some people shouldn’t have unfettered choices, and once we accept that implication, once that principle is established, we must ask ourselves, where will it end? When the next scientific study reveals the next horribly unhealthy food, will that be the next target? How long will it take before we’re choosing between different colors of government approved nutrition wafers? Where is the line drawn? If the ends justifies the means in this case, why wouldn’t it apply in the next public health scare, or the one after that?

A critic might naturally ask me what my answer is? What would I do about the obesity epidemic? My answer is simple, nothing. I would do nothing, because there’s nothing to be done, at least nothing that won’t do more harm than good. Obesity is a result of free human beings exercising free choices in a free society. One could well argue that it isn’t a ‘problem’ at all, but the sign of a society that has largely eliminated hunger as a social problem. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the trumpeting of these various public health ‘crises’ started at about the same time that government healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid became widespread. It’s a simple formula, the government now has a financial interest in restricting people’s choice. They are joined by lobbyists for health insurers, providers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, who are often the uncredited ghost writers of healthcare legislation. They spend money to form ‘advocacy’ groups, buy advertising time for public service announcements. They may mean well, but they cut corners. Actually treating patients at an individual level, understanding their situations, empathizing with their problems, that’s hard work. It’s not something that can be done by passing a law or buying an advertisement. But politicians want to be seen doing something, so they cut corners. Doing the job of a doctor, a personal trainer, a chef, and all those other niceties that the private jet crowd takes for granted, is really hard, and really expensive. Banning jumbo Mountain Dew, or forcing students to pick up an apple (whether they eat it or not), is actually pretty easy. What they’re hoping is some statistical evidence at the macro level that obesity is decreasing. That way, they can claim victory, or at least ‘progress’. Maybe the food police will succeed in lowering obesity. If they do, history may forgive them as easily as Mendel, but it’s just as likely they’ll fail, and create a laundry list of unintended consequences. If you’re going to be vindicated by history, you have to be right. A lot of people thought they were right throughout history, and cut corners to try to prove it. Not many ended up being right. I personally can’t think of any who were politicians, leaders, or lobbyists.

 

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