New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to stay out of the Republican presidential race means that the American people will be spared months of discussion about his ample waistline and the bad example it sets. Nonetheless, with first lady Michelle Obama urging everyone to get moving, obesity remains a political hot potato, or maybe a tater tot. Below, a helping of skepticism about the causes of Americans’ poor eating habits—and the effectiveness of political fixes.
1. People in poor neighborhoods lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Walk into nearly any supermarket in the United States, and you are immediately confronted with abundance—bok choy, mangos, melons and avocados from across the globe—where a couple of varieties of apples and carrots once struggled to fill shelf space.
But not everyone has easy access to this fruity phantasmagoria. If you’re picking up ingredients for dinner at a gas station or a convenience store, you probably live in what eggheads have taken to calling a “food desert”—an ill-defined concept with powerful policy implications. A commonly cited 2009 statistic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has 23.5 million Americans living in poor urban and rural areas with limited access to fresh food.
Making those food deserts bloom is a centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity agenda. This January found the first lady smiling for the cameras with Wal-Mart executives in Southeast Washington and declaring herself “more hopeful than ever” as she tours the nation’s produce sections.
But the prevalence of food deserts is almost certainly overstated. Not having a supermarket in your Zip code isn’t the last word in access to healthy food. According to the USDA, 93 percent of “desert” dwellers have access to a car. And farmers markets, often overlooked in surveys of rich and poor neighborhoods alike, have tripled since 1994.
Still, it does seem reasonable that making it easier to buy fresh food would improve what people eat. However, a study published this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the first to measure the impact of access to fresh food on diet, followed 5,000 people for over 15 years and found something surprising: Proximity to a grocery store or supermarket doesn’t increase consumption of healthy food. That suggests that a lack of convenient leafy greens isn’t the problem. Dinner menus are the product of subtle and pervasive food cultures, which can’t be tweaked from the East Wing.
The primary beneficiaries of tax incentives and other nudges aimed at abolishing food deserts are big grocery chains, not poor shoppers.
2. Advertising forces people to make unhealthy choices.
Television-bound children, their eyes awhirl with images of Tony the Tiger and his high-fructose friends, haunt the debate about junk-food advertising. And any parent who has ever experienced a 2-year-old’s grocery store meltdown would certainly like to have someone to blame. But the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has concluded that “current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity [excess weight] among children and youth.” Similar findings hold true for adults.
We don’t need advertisers to tell us that candy is delicious. Humans were big fans of fat and sugar long before the idiot box was invented. We’re programmed to go for the good (bad) stuff. Sure, Kellogg’s and General Mills have big advertising budgets, but they’re nowhere near as powerful as Darwin. Cracking down on advertisers gives politicians a scapegoat, but it doesn’t make kids, or their parents, healthier.
3. Eating healthy is too expensive.
A dinner of hot dogs and Devil Dogs is undeniably cheap. But a bowl of beans and rice with a banana on the side is cheaper. A survey by the USDA found that, by weight, bottled water is cheaper than soda, low-fat milk is cheaper than high-fat, and whole fruit is cheaper than processed sweet snacks. Preparing a big pot of lentils for the week may be not be glamorous, but it’s much cheaper and not much more time-consuming than cooking up frozen pizza or mac and cheese.
The New York Times’ Mark Bittman—no fan of Frito-Lay—writes that the idea that junk food is cheaper than real food is “just plain wrong” and that blaming unhealthy habits on cost is incorrect. People who eat lots of unhealthy food aren’t doing so because they lack cheap, healthy options. Instead, it’s because they like junk food. Making junk food comparatively more pricey by tacking on taxes—a proposal that has been revived many times by Yale’s Kelly Brownell (and recently made into law in Denmark)—mostly means that people will pay more taxes, not eat more kale.
4. People need more information about what they eat.