In May the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina on behalf of blogger Steve Cooksey. The suit claims the state violated Cooksey’s First Amendment right to free speech when it informed him that his anti-diabetes blog runs afoul of North Carolina laws requiring a license to dispense anything the state considers dietary advice.
This week Forbes is reporting that the main driver of the state crackdown on Cooksey is the national Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). Forbes reports this group, based on internal documents the magazine says it obtained, pushes states to establish powerful dietetics and nutrition boards—like the board in North Carolina that has targeted Cooksey—“for the express purpose of limiting market competition for its Registered Dietitian members.” (Emphasis in original.)
If true, this is both illegal and troubling. But surprising? Hardly.
It’s just one example of a larger trend. After all, in the United States many regulations and policies steer people toward certain dietary practices and away from others—nearly always with the backing of some powerful, entrenched, monied interest and nearly always for no good reason whatsoever.
For example, government subsidies pay farmers to produce some foods in lieu of others. Think corn, soy, dairy, and sugar. Government policies promote particular foods at the expense of others. The USDA’s MyPlate (formerly the Food Pyramid), the Institute of Medicine’s proposed EnergyStar-like front-of-package label, and federal licensing and state practitioner requirements for registered dietitians are good examples of this longstanding trend. And regulations make it easier to produce some foods while making it more difficult to produce others. For example, a host of federal regulations create barriers to small-scale meat, fruit, and vegetable production and sale, which often presents immense scalability issues and helps concentrate production in the hands of a few larger producers.
Such a system of picking winners and losers would be abhorrent even if we could somehow label it a success. After all, it’s not government’s job to promote or restrict particular ways of eating. But because the science behind these subsidies and regulations is often disputed, unsettled, or—even worse—just plain wrong, many argue the results have been nothing short of catastrophic.
Next month I’ll sit on a panel at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium at Harvard University Law School. The panel I'll take part in—Seeds of Discontent: Regulatory Hurdles to Practicing an Ancestral Diet—will look at the many often-terrible ways government has skewed Americans' dietary choices.
Steve Cooksey’s struggles in North Carolina (and subsequent IJ lawsuit) are very much on my mind as I prepare my presentation for the panel. Why?
Cooksey is not just a vocal advocate against diabetes, he's also a "paleo" blogger, and the AHS symposium will bring together some of the leading paleo practitioners and proponents in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, supporters of a paleo (or “ancestral”) diet advocate eating the foods they argue closely track what humans evolved to eat during the Paleolithic era. Those foods include meats, fruits, and vegetables (“good” calories) and exclude grains, industrial seed oils, and added sugars (“bad” calories).
Advocates of the paleo diet, including author and science writer Gary Taubes, cite evidence that the explosion of obesity in the modern era can be traced to dietary policies that stress swapping out “good” fats in favor of “bad” carbohydrates. In a fascinating interview with George Mason University free-market economist Russ Roberts last year, Taubes argues that the federal government had little or no basis for pushing a high-carb diet on the American people for decades, and solid evidence to do just the opposite. And because the government chose to buck common sense, federal policies centered on shaping our diets have been responsible instead for mis-shaping our waistlines.
While Taubes’s appearance on Roberts’s popular free-market podcast EconTalk may surprise some, it’s further evidence of the paleo diet’s appeal to the “free minds, free markets” crowd. If there’s one group that’s flocked to the paleo diet in large numbers (at least anecdotally) in recent years, it’s libertarians (a phenomenon others have noted).
Why might that be the case?
“The government approved diet embodied in the ‘Food Pyramid’ is what it is because it’s put out by a likely-captured Department of Agriculture,” says Jerry Brito, a relatively recent adopter of the paleo diet who is a senior research fellow and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center.
Brito explains that government misinformation and subsidies are probably most responsible for pushing an increasing number of libertarians to adopt the paleo diet.
“Beyond that,” Brito says, “I think libertarians are generally skeptical non-conformists, and being on this diet is a big middle finger to received wisdom and ‘the system.’”