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.'"
"I see two streams of thought that nicely connected libertarian philosophy and the paleo lifestyle," says Michael Ostrolenk, a policy advisor with the Ancestral Health Society (a co-sponsor of the Harvard conference) and senior coach with SEALFIT's Unbeatable Mind Academy, in remarks that echo Brito's.
"The first being the generally anti-authoritarian and post-conventional streak in the paleo movement," says Ostrolenk. "That lines up very nicely with my understanding of libertarian thought in the U.S. Both paleo as a lifestyle and libertarianism as a world view mostly reject the corporate/state view of how people should think and live their lives."
"Secondarily, as post-conventional thinkers, paleo folks do not tend to throw out the baby with the bath water but attempt to integrate ancient wisdom and modern science," he says. "I find the same attempted integration in many of my libertarian leaning friends."
It would be a grave mistake to argue that only libertarians or those who practice (or might otherwise practice) a paleo diet are uniquely harmed by incompetent and biased federal dietary policies. Another group that in many ways couldn't be more different than the meat-first paleos—vegans—sees some of the same problems with federal policies.
"By giving billions in subsidies to artificially decrease the cost of producing meat, eggs, and dairy, the federal government helps promote the false impression that plant products are somehow more expensive than animal products," says Paul Shapiro, vice president of Farm Animal Protection with the Humane Society of the United States. "In much of the world, the opposite [is] the case: regular meat-eating is reserved for the wealthy."
He's right. But so are Ostrolenk, Brito, and Taubes.
It's nearly impossible to implement federal policy that squares the diets of those practicing a vegan diet with those practicing a paleo one (and vice versa). So which one should the government favor? Neither, of course. Not only does the government have no role to play in making decisions about what we should eat, but the government has proven to be an abominable decisionmaker when it comes to influencing dietary choices. Individuals and families are much more capable of making such choices on their own.
Like me, one need not have adopted a paleo diet to think the government's dietary policies and priorities are out of whack. That's not a paleo principle. And it's not a vegan one—nor a notion unique to kosher, halal, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, raw, macrobiotic, Atkins, Pritikin, or South Beach dieters, either. No, it's just common sense that's free and available to all by the spoonful.
Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.