Food Policy

Government Menu Mandates Are Not Curing Obesity

Obesity rates may be leveling off or even falling.


Mallinaltzin / Wikimedia Commns

Earlier this week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the multi-billion-dollar health philanthropy and grant-maker, took part in an online event hosted by TEDMED, a forum that tracks closely with the TED Talk model (and which was also created by TED's founder).

This week's event, TEDMED Great Challenges: A Candid Conversation About Childhood Obesity, looked at ways to ensure American children have "an equal opportunity to grow up at a healthy weight."

RWJF used the event to highlight Philadelphia, which has become a focal point of RWJF's anti-obesity work. Obesity levels there and elsewhere across the country have been high enough that RWJF has painted a gloomy portrait of our future.

"Just two years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health predicted that, if trends continued the way they seemed to be going, more than 60% of adults in 13 states would be obese by the year 2030—and have the extremely high medical bills to prove it," the TEDMED primer noted.

But what's happening in Philadelphia has helped changed the narrative.

"But now, we're finally starting to see signs of progress against an epidemic that was once feared to be unstoppable," wrote TEDMED.

So what's the change? And what's behind it?

The good news is that data show obesity levels among K-12 students in Philadelphia fell by 4.7 percent from the 2006-2007 school year to the 2009-2010 school year. The caveat there—and it's a big one—is that the data doesn't track individual students. So there's no way of knowing whether this is due to some influx of younger students who aren't obese, older obese students graduating (or moving away, or dropping out of school), some combination, or something else entirely.

This clear uncertainty, though, hasn't stopped RWJF from suggesting that policy changes it favors are behind the change.

Among the six factors RWJF cites as part of Philadelphia's efforts "working to address obesity" is the fact the city "required chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards."

Cheering on mandatory calorie labeling is a constant RWJF refrain. In a 2013 report listing four key strategies for reducing obesity, for example, RWJF also credited four states for "requiring chain restaurants to post nutrition information."

But, as I've written before, laws requiring the posting of calorie counts don't work. In fact, research has shown they can push people to ingest more calories, rather than fewer.

This is precisely the problem. RWJF touts many policies. Some might work. Some might not. That's fine. But some have been shown not to work. And RWJF appears to treat all of these very different animals—the uncertain ones and the certainly-not-working ones—as cogs that are part of a real reduction in obesity levels. And it does so without even knowing who, exactly, the less obese people are.

This sloppiness is a longstanding problem in RWJF's work.

In 2012, for example, I wrote about another RWJF study that looked at areas the group said were experiencing "the most progress" in combating childhood obesity.

As I noted after sifting through the data, what RWJF was touting was, among other things, a reported "decrease of 1.1 percent in the obese/overweight levels of [two] completely different set[s] of students over five years."

Worse than touting a statistically insignificant decrease in childhood obesity as an area of great "progress," RWJF failed to note that the group it paid to carry out the research had also noted that "the majority of counties in the state [of California, where the study was centered, are] still registering increases in obesity rates among school-age children."

If this is evidence from places with "the most progress," then I suppose any old Pyrrhic victory is worth celebrating.

The 2012 study has been updated since my last look, with more data added last year. Some of the decline—as high as 21.4 percent in one case—are impressive on paper. But the data suffers from some of the same flaws, including that the research is often tracking two entirely different sets of individuals in the same location.

In any case, the good news is that obesity levels do appear to be leveling off in some places, and among some populations. As The New York Times reported, in 2012, they are "the first indication that the obesity epidemic, one of the nation's most intractable health problems, may actually be reversing course."

This could be the result of any number of factors. It could be the result of one singe factor. No one knows.

Researchers, the Times reported, "say they are not sure what is behind the declines." But "many scientists doubt that anti-obesity programs actually work."

And until research proves a definitive causal link between specific changes and specific outcomes, groups like RWJF (and others) would best serve the public by halting claims that the group knows how to reduce obesity levels or, worse, that RWJF's disproven policy prescriptions are behind any positive trends.

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  1. There’s nobody as hyper-aware of the calorie content of foods as the obese.

    Which reminds me:


    1. I (unsuccessfully) fought my weight the first 22 years of my adult life. I can quote product nutrition labels like most men can quote baseball player statistics.

      1. did you ever try, you know, working out, instead of being a pussy?

  2. An example of what the nutrition bureaucracy works hard to ignore because it doesn’t fit their obesity paradigm:

    PLoS One 2011;6(8):e23384
    Food composition of the diet in relation to changes in waist circumference adjusted for body mass index.

    The objective of the study was to ascertain the association of various foods with changes in waist circumference. The study included 48,631 men and women from five countries who were followed for 5.5 years.

    Regarding butter and margarine, the study found for each 100 calorie increase in butter consumption there was a .01 centimeter per year decrease in waist circumference. For each 100 calorie increase in margarine consumption there was a .03 centimeter per year increase in waist circumference.

    1. They’ll tell you saccharine causes cancer, too.

      1. Artificial sweeteners are positively associated with tumor development. The problem here being third-party causation. Quitting high school is positively associated with unmarried teen pregnancy, but no one thinks public school classrooms are birth control.

        Obesity is positively associated with cancer. Artificial sweetener is used heavily by people who don’t want to be obese. It looks likely that obesity is the most easily observable symptom of the same thing that causes the cancer.

    2. LFOD, I’m sure you know the government hasn’t the slightest clue what a healthy diet looks like. They’re stuck in the 1970s blaming animal fat for everything, when there was never one, single, solitary piece of credible scientific evidence even suggesting that it was harmful.

      Telling us to eat more grains (to sell more grains, which is the USDA’s stated mission); to replace natural animal fats with highly concentrated, chemically processed vegetable oils (to sell more soybeans, corn, et al, which are heavily subsidized); and to eat more fiber in fortified grain products (see grains above), when adequate fiber is abundant in reasonable servings of fruits and vegetables, are the stupidest recommendations anyone could make, given the available science.

      Agencies were also happy to look the other way on sugar (another subsidy) for decades, despite the overwhelming evidence that sugar is largely responsible for our current epidemic of chronic diseases.

      It’s almost as if the government’s mission was to instruct us on the exact opposite of a healthy diet.

  3. Lets roll with those punches dude.

  4. Regarding the photo: should obese people wear purple? It just opens the door to a lot of Barney jokes.

    1. I pity the fool who doesn’t show the proper respect to The Grimace.

      1. As horrible high school kids there was a tall fat chick who had a propensity to wear purple that we referred to as “Grimace.”

  5. 3500 Calories in this milkshake? Challenge accepted.

    1. What is that, the one meal a day version of Soylent?

  6. This week’s event, TEDMED Great Challenges: A Candid Conversation About Childhood Obesity, looked at ways to ensure American children have “an equal opportunity to grow up at a healthy weight.

    Genetically impossible. Conference over.

    :drops mic:


      Genetic engineering. We offer the world ORDER!

      1. It’s funny that after the Truman’s administration’s School Lunch Act, the government patted itself on the back and gave many ‘huzzahs!’ about solving the problem of hungry poor kids in school. Then all across the nation, Black kids were going to the school nurse with bellyaches. You mean an estimated 75 percent of African Americans have some form of lactose intolerance? Who knew?!?

        1. Of course, the National Dairy Council’s recommendation for lactose intolerance is Drink through the pain, you pussies!


        2. Cows’ milk is RACIST!!!111!!!

  7. Stap carb-loading.

  8. “But now, we’re finally starting to see signs of progress against an epidemic that was once feared to be unstoppable,” wrote TEDMED.

    Either it’s not an epidemic; or, if it is something communicable, treat it with medicine. Either way, you don’t need the anti-social engineering shit.

  9. I sort of invented a diet when I turned 30. It’s not glamorous. It’s based on observation and a dose of fear. I call it “don’t eat what fat people eat”.

    1. Problem is, a lot of skinny people eat all the same crap and get away with it.

      1. Maybe. Skinny people still get diabetes heart disease. They just don’t know it until it’s too late.

      2. I can eat crap and get away with it for the most part but it makes me feel ill and sluggish, plus my metabolism has slowed down in recent years.

  10. Kids are overweight – they need to gonoutside and play!

    (Please consult local law enforcement before letting your kids play outside)

    1. At first I chuckled, then I got slightly depressed.

      1. People acted like letting my kids go outside and play amounted to negligence or child abuse.

  11. Tax obesity.


    1. Here’s what I don’t get. These kids are being separated from their parents and placed frequently into the hands of strangers. Does Pelosi believe breaking up families is a good thing?

      1. Does Pelosi believe breaking up families is a good thing?

        Authoritarian statists always believe that to be true.

      2. Does Pelosi believe breaking up families is a good thing?

        Please. As Lispy McGee helpfully pointed out, the end game for Progressives is to have children snatched from their parents (filthy breeders) and raised in common, like the ancient Spartans. Of which, a Krypteia-like elite will be gleaned to terrorist us helots.

        1. So, Elian Gonzalez wasn’t baby Jesus then? Because Cuban? And communism now okay? To the left returning him to his father took priority over the wishes of his dead mother and his extended family and the probably deplorable human rights situation he would return to in Cuba.

          At gun point, he was torn-out of the hands of his grandparents to be returned to his father because…….only Central American kids can be the baby Jesus?

          What’s the left’s principal here? Oh, wait they don’t have one. It’s whatever is politically expedient.

          1. Obviously, the difference is that Cuba has universal health care, and of Central America only Costa Rica and Panama do.

            Because they cared about Elian’s health, so much.


            1. Yeah, health care.


              It couldn’t have been because the left wanted to undermine the right’s anti-communist position on Cuba, and use Gonzales as a pawn to normalize relations. Nancy Pelosi was very much in favor of enforcing immigration laws and deporting Gonzales.

              I’m amazed Central Americans don’t see this current situation as vampiric. Nancy Pelosi is stealing their kids.

          2. “What’s the left’s principal here?”

            Ed Rooney. All the time. Wanna gummi bear?

            Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

            1. Yeah, I do that all the time. Principle.

  12. OT: Bill Maher Asks Neil DeGrasse Tyson Why Republicans Don’t Really Like Scientists…..-like-him/

    1. Palin’s Buttplug|7.26.14 @ 9:45AM|#
      OT: Turd posts lefty lies.
      Fuck off.

    2. You mean “Scientists” Like James Hansen? Who don’t really do “science” so much as political bullshit-flinging?


      “Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented level

      Oh, but what could stop this inevitable apocolypse!?

      “President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground. “

      Right. Keystone Pipeline.

      The Keystone Pipeline which all sane people agree wouldn’t have any impact on ’emissions’ at all (+/- sub 1%, less than rounding error)

      Maybe some people dislike assholes who wrap themselves in “SCIENCE!” while spouting lies in aid of hyperbolic partisanship, PB?

      You’d know all about *that*.

    3. Those Republicans and their earth-spirit worshipping crystal-healing faith in consensus and power over evidence and the scientific method!!! Wait, that kind of sounds like another political party….

      However, the truth is that people in general are not very scientific. The problem with progressives is their incessant need to lie about being human. So conservatives are primal cavepeople who fear their own shadow being visited by the highly evolved, wise and sophisticated liberal alien race. Conservatives try to argue that progressives are also human, but they just can’t understand with their tiny rodent-like brains how advanced progressives truly are. Poor things.

  13. “Come on, this house looks easy to break into.”

    “I dunno, man, what if the owner comes home?”

    “Ha – what’s he gonna do – put you in a wrestling hold?”…..latestnews

  14. Good article but reject the premise rather than feeding the government beast. It’s IRRELEVANT whether government menu mandates impact obesity – the government has no business in my pantry or dictating what foods I consume.

  15. Not enough cronyism yet, so rare earths get their share:

    “Ucore Throws Weight Behind Rare Earths Bill”
    “It would also authorize the US government to spend $41 million to stockpile six critical metals, including dysprosium and yttrium ? two metals found at Ucore’s Bokan Mountain deposit.”

    Can’t rely on the market here; this is DIFFERENT!

  16. Counting calories sounds a lot like math. The US doesn’t “do” math anymore.

  17. Personal anecdote from the private school high school I just graduated from: when we were forced to change our lunches, which for us meant that we couldn’t serve a dessert everyday and some foods changed changed nominally from the previous year (a hamburger became a hamburger on a whole wheat bun), no kids that were fat at the beginning of the year were skinny by the end of the year. What did happen was a lot of people such as myself were fucking starving, because we were also forced to take away a lot of the side options away such as sandwiches because the government said we were getting too much protein. Top down control of caloric consumption is the dumbest fucking thing on the planet.

    1. To Bush League: I realize I’m commenting on this thread 2 days late but I’ll say it anyway. . .
      What’s stopping you from bringing in your own lunch packed with whatever the hell you want to eat? If you’re attending private school I’m guessing your parents could buy you a lunch cooler and some cold cuts.

  18. Dear Baylin Linnekin,

    re: your article titled, “Why Government Menu Mandates Are Not Curing Obesity”

    There is an extremely common error made in criticisms of modern-day progressive regulatory regimes, in that the critics all-too-frequently assume the purpose of said regulatory scheme is to actually achieve some goal, be it tangible improvements to ‘Public Health’, ‘Environmental Protections’, ‘National Security’, or simply vague claims to ‘Help Raise Awareness’ of something.

    This is to confuse the marketing of a product for what the product is.

    For instance: no one actually expects Red Bull to ‘give them wings’. Or that Burger King really wants you to ‘Have it Your Way’.

    The purpose of regulatory schemes is to expand. Regulatory regimes are like water, and they seek every possible nook and crack to seep into and establish their presence. This allows for greater funding, the lifesblood of all regulatory systems. More areas for control? More needs for funding. More departments, more department heads, more slots to which people can be appointed by our elected officials. This is how ‘power’ grows.

    If the goal were to improve public health, the government would focus on enabling people to exercise more often. It is fairly easy to conclude that the State has very little real interest in HAVING a healthier population, so much as they are publically seen making ‘efforts’ towards fostering one.

    Just FYI

    1. I’m just wondering what gov’t policy in the USA or anywhere would enable people to exercise more often. Would encouraging prosperity allow people more leisure time, part of which they would use to or with exercise? Or not? Or the reverse?

      More gov’t-owned, open-to-the-public facilities for recreation? Or are countries already at or near satur’n with those? Removal of handicapable mandates, so more people would be climbing stairs? Removal of mandates of parking space? Removal of mandates on shopping bags, so more people could carry groceries home? Removal of pooper scooper mandates, so more people would housebreak dogs instead of paper training them, and walk them? (Or would the dog duties make people less able to walk outside?) Removal of labor laws, making it economic to hire more people to do things by hand?

      1. your cup runneth over.

        I’d probably suggest that the old-fashioned ‘mandating Gym classes’ in public school, and measuring people’s standards of fitness as part of one’s ‘achievements’, was more than sufficient.

        i.e. people who were below minimum fitness standards would know it, and be asked to put in extra gym-time to ‘pass’.

        Given that most people here object to public school social-engineering writ-large, they’d probably find this abhorrent

        Me, not so much. if they’re going to spend most of their time filling their heads full of shit, i think any time spent away from classrooms and exercising their bodies is probably only to the good.

      2. Anyhow, while interesting… the issue of ‘does/can government ‘encourage’ greater health through exercise’ is something of a side note to my larger point above about the regulatory-state, which i think is more of the issue here.

  19. OK, I am going to make a politically incorrect statement about the so-called “obesity epidemic”.

    I am throwing this out there as a possibility that perhaps we haven’t considered – so that people can tell me what’s WRONG with it as an idea.

    Mexico is the one country in the world where people are more obese than in the US.

    Before the recession, illegal immigration was surging. This would indirectly have the effect of increasing the number of Mexican kids in schools. Statistically, while that’s happening the % of obese kids in the schools rises.

    After the recession, illegal immigration tailed off, and there was actually a lot of self-deportation. This would indirectly have the effect of, if not decreasing the number of Mexican kids in schools, would change the demographic composition of incoming classes year-over-year. So all of a sudden the classes after the recession would statistically look thinner than the classes from before the recession.

    Is this demographically possible? Or just crazy?

    1. I think that’s an interesting theory. It could be possible if the percentage of the obese in the US is overrepresentative of illegal Mexican immigrants.

  20. Government Menu Mandates Are Not Curing Obesity because people don’t get fat from not reading menus.

  21. Nom nom nom.

  22. A person can only get so fat, but there’s no limit on how stupid they can be.

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