Nanny State

Were They Hungry a Half-Hour After Eating the Pretend Food?

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An experiment reported in the latest issue of Psychological Science suggests that taxes are more effective than subsidies at encouraging people to buy healthier foods. The researchers gave a group of mothers a set amount of play money to purchase pretend food in a simulated grocery store. There were five different shopping conditions: one with regular prices, two where the prices of food with low "calorie-for-nutrition" scores were reduced (by 12.5 percent and then by 25 percent), and two where the prices of food with high calorie-for-nutrition scores were raised by the same percentages. The results:

Taxing unhealthy foods reduced overall calories purchased, while cutting the proportion of fat and carbohydrates and upping the proportion of protein in a typical week's groceries.

By contrast, subsidizing the prices of healthy food actually increased overall calories purchased without changing the nutritional value at all. It appears that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and vegetables and treated the family to less healthy alternatives, such as chips and soda pop. Taxes had basically the opposite effect, shifting spending from less healthy to healthier choices.

The failure of the subsidies (an idea championed by anti-fat crusaders such as Kelly Brownell) is not surprising, since people do not buy Doritos and ice cream because they are cheaper than broccoli and brown rice. As for the success of the taxes, the enthusiasm of health nannies should be tempered by the fact that the experiment was highly artificial, since the subjects were not spending real money on real food. The results of a study where product choice and total spending were artificially limited do not necessarily predict what would happen in the real world, where people may switch to cheaper brands or shift money from other expenditures to groceries when the prices of their favorite foods go up rather than heading to the produce aisle. To the extent that "junk food" taxes do affect grocery purchases, they will be most effective for people of modest means, a fact that should give pause to self-identified progressives who favor this sort of "public health" intervention. I'm not sure why such do-gooders think a highly regressive tax is redeemed by the fact that it is also highly paternalistic, driven by rich white people's notions of what is good for poor brown people.

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  1. Taxing unhealthy foods reduced overall calories purchased, while cutting the proportion of fat and carbohydrates and upping the proportion of protein in a typical week’s groceries.

    By contrast, subsidizing the prices of healthy food actually increased overall calories purchased without changing the nutritional value at all.

    And what were the results when the play food was neither taxed nor subsidized?

    1. Angels cried. Don’t you want baby Jesus to eat healthily?

  2. That’s unpossible.

  3. An experiment reported in the latest issue of Psychological Science suggests that taxes are more effective than subsidies at encouraging people to buy healthier foods.

    Ooo! Ooo! I have an idea!

    How about you just mind you own fucking business? I’ll worry about what I chooose to eat.

  4. people do not buy Doritos and ice cream because they are cheaper than broccoli and brown rice

    Actually, Jacob, some of these types of “junk” food have a much higher calorie to dollar ratio than healthier foods. Which makes sense for a poor person, as more calories per dollar is a better use of their money. Mac and cheese is dirt cheap and has a lot of calories. Broccoli does not.

    1. I agree. I was unemployed in 2003 for nine months. I ate a ton of Wai Wai noodles, rice and beans, etc. And even though I parked my truck and road a bicycle everywhere, I gained about twenty-five pounds. Lost it as soon as I started working and driving again And I sit at a desk all day.

    2. To be pedantic, mac and cheese is dirt cheap and has a lot of shitty calories that will fuck up your endocrine system and make you a fat diabetic legless fuck.

      1. Better than nothing.

        1. My diet of spam and grasshoppers will make me immortal on a pauper’s budget, shitbag.

      2. That’s mah re-ward!

      3. Can you eat the legs, as long as they have to be removed anyway?

  5. So basically, if you make calories more expensive, people will eat less of them. What a novel idea.

    1. It’s called Crap and Trade.

  6. …. and why is it assumed that “mothers” are doing all the unhealthy shopping?!

  7. Come on, guys. If we didn’t have nannies, Stossel would have had no need to have Gillespie on his show to rip some do-gooder a new one on national TV. It was beautiful even if a part of me thought Nick was going to leap off the stage and beat her to death with her own limbs, which may or may not have been a negative for the cause.

  8. No shit. If you make food more expensive, people with a fixed amount of fake money will buy less of it. And if you make it more expensive people will buy less. This seems to be about all this study really says. How fucking stupid do they think people are?

    1. I wonder how much of the taxpayers’ money they got to conduct the study?

      1. Maybe what we really need is a tax on idiotic studies like this one.

    2. I had to read the article twice to be sure the study was a stupid as it is, but you’re right. They managed to prove that given a fixed amount of money, people buy as much or more food when the prices are lower than higher – which requires no experiment since it can be shown based on math alone. I hate to be one of those people who write off social sciences as dominated by innumerates, but those are some innumerate motherfuckers.

  9. I have recently been traveling in a number of countries, some of which had extremely high prices on so-called “junk food” – and in fact, it did cause me to reduce the amount of those foods that I bought. In fact, in some countries I pretty much stopped eating altogether, knowing that the next country would likely have better deals and I could replenish the calories I had lost out on.

    That said, I think the whole focus on “junk food” is way off. Humans like fat and sugar because it is good for us. Evolution selected for it for a reason. Sure, it should be balanced with other foods, but I don’t believe sugar, or most types of fat, are especially harmful in themselves.

    On the contrary, I believe there is a simpler reason for the “epidemic” of obesity: our bodies regulate their weight quite well. I’m not sure how to put this politely, but let’s just say that while I was travelling in places where I could not get my favorite foods, my body actually used a larger percentage of the food I ate, while I have noticed a much greater portion of the food I eat has not been used so efficiently since I returned to North America and have returned to the foods I am used to, which I have eaten in larger quantities.

    A well-known effect of the body’s self-regulation of weight is that an extended period of calorie restriction is perceived by the body as starvation, so the next time the body gets more calories than it needs it puts some of those extra calories into fat cells, to prepare for the next period of starvation.

    In my own life I have experienced three periods in which calorie-restricted diets led to weight loss. First was basic training, where I went from 143 lbs to 136 lbs in the first month, but after a second month in which I was allowed more food I left basic training weighing about 158. Second was a period of economic difficulty where I went down to about 150, and afterwards I rebounded to about 175. The third period was due to extreme cold weather and the effects of high altitude, and again I went down to about 150, and rebounded to about 195 when I returned to normal conditions. This is a common pattern for many people, especially dieters, and my main advantage was in starting off so slim.

    If we hold to the theory that weight gain is primarily a result of this phenomenon, then the primary cause of obesity is not too many calories but extended periods of too little food succeeded by periods of adequate food. This explanation better fits our experience that obesity is prevalent among those who have frequent periods of inadequate food supplies, due to either poverty or dieting.

    There is some research being done into drugs that could “reset” the body to a lower weight, which would allow a person to lose weight once, take the drug, and keep that weight off – but until then the anti-fat activists, if they want to meet their objectives, should probably focus on ensuring that poor people can ALWAYS get LOTS of calories (which junk food provides fairly cheaply) and advising people never to go on calorie-restricted diets unless they have very good medical reasons to do so. In this light, I expect that increased taxes on “junk food” will probably exacerbate obesity problems.

    Incidentally, for some century-old evidence for my contention, consider this line from “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson: “He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean-favoured and imperially slim.” Why “imperially slim”? Perhaps because an imperial family never wanted for sufficient calories, and therefore never had to put on fat.

    1. Too lazy too google it for you, but look for a talk that Gary Taubes gave at Berkely(maybe). He talks for a while about how, historically, dire poverty and obestity coexist side-by-side.

    2. tl;dr

      cool story bro

    3. Not snacking between lunch and dinner does not count as inadequate food supplies.

    4. So my mind was filled with wonder,
      When the evening headline read,
      Richard Cory went home last night,
      And put a bullet in his head.

    5. so evolutionarily speaking, the farther down the line someone gets from an ancestor who suffered starvation regularly, the better our bodies should be able to handle calories? Or am I just making this up as I go along?

      1. Hard to say — a lot of sexual selection pressure for women at least to be thinner, but it’s also easier for women who take in a lot of calories to have more children, assuming they can find a mate.

        I’m going to go with the assumption that overall, a lot of calories in the average diet will tend, over time, to result in a populace that is heavier on average, and fewer calories will result in a thinner populace on average.

    6. You’re kind of coy about it, but what I think you are implying is not the case. There are not a lot of digestible calories in your shit, unless you have some sort of malabsorptive disorder.

      The body does have mechanisms that can act to maintain body-weight even given different levels of caloric intake, but these mechanisms mostly involve regulating activity levels. One of the biggest differences between people who can eat a lot and not gain weight and those who can’t is that the former react to overfeeding by fidgeting more. This might sound implausible, but you can fidget away hundreds of calories a day.

      The idea that people have widely varying metabolisms in the way that most people mean that is pretty much a myth, absent medical conditions like thyroid problems.

  10. I guess you can tell an arguement is really lame when it pulls the race card.

  11. If I normally spend $50 on groceries, and the government gives me a $10 subsidy to buy healthy groceries, then I will end up buying between $50 and $60 on groceries. Only a lobotomized leftie would be surprised at this.

  12. Another aspect of what is missing is figuring out how long the food will actually last. Buying more calories does not necessarily mean that they will finish the food in the same amount of time. This is especially true in the mixed example where you get bulky nutritious food as well as snacks; I’ll bet the snacks last longer in than in the “control” group.

  13. Instead of considering subsidizing “healthy” food, why aren’t the nannies working to UNsubsidize unhealthy foodstuffs? All that High Fructose Corn Syrup bullshit fake food that most people eat is highly subsidized. Wouldn’t subsidizing “healthy” and unhealthy “food,” at best, cancel each other out?

  14. I tend to think obesity and bad health are caused by people who mostly eat stuff other than food. I’m not a food nanny ( it’s your choice to eat crap), but I appreciate the Michael Pollans ideas like “eating food” and avoiding processed garbage. I think it should be common sense that if you eat fruits and vegetables ( I think Balko linked to a study one time that said the average person can get a day’s worth of fruits for like 28 cents or something ridiculously cheap) and avoid things that can be called Diabetes in a Box, you will maintain a healthy weight and body/mind ( to the degree diet contributes).

    1. I’d rather die young eating and drinking stuff that I enjoy than living longer not eating and drinking stuff that I enjoy. What a miserable way to go through life.

      1. You can do all that and be a hypocritical nanny too!

      2. I found that, when I cut that junk out of my diet, that I enjoyed real food more. I also found that, when I tasted the junk I was craving, that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I remembered. I drink mostly water, coffee, and unsweetened tea now. I had a glass of Coke the other day, and it was like drinking maple syrup crossed with Vicks 44. Totally gross.

        I also enjoy visible abs more than cheese curls and Lucky Charms. So do the laaaadies.

  15. “…that the experiment was highly artificial, since the subjects were not spending real money on real food.”

    This says it all. Would it have been that hard to give them real money and allow them to take home the food they bought? I can’t believe this made it into a psychological journal.

    Just a guess here, but I’m willing to bet this study was funded through a government grant (even though I could have done this one for free).

  16. “I can’t believe this made it into a psychological journal.”

    The science is settled!

  17. …anti-fat crusaders such as Kelly Brownell…

    Brownell is both anti-fat and very fat.

  18. Maybe if they made them work (like, you know, real life) for that “play money” there would have been a difference in how they spent it.

  19. You can pry my Oreos from cold, dripping with milk, hands!!!

  20. To me the study suggests that people have a tendency to avoid whichever option the government got involved with. Avoid the taxed item as well as the subsidized item.

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