13 March 2013

Educators vs. Enforcers

As we all know NYC is deep in a snit about soda.  How much soda you can buy  and where you can buy it are, apparently, like the biggest issue that Manhattanites have to wank about right now. Must be nice. However, I think that banning the soda is a bad idea and that this particular piece of legislation is not so great. 
  1. It fails to address the root cause of our nation's health issues.  The obesity epidemic is a bit of a misnomer.  It is not that people are heavier, it is that people have sub-par diets and are sedentary.  This may, for some, be correlated with having a higher BMI and other co-morbid conditions.  Banning the Big Gulp doesn't help people afford better food for their children or make sure that they get 30 minutes of exercise a day.  While removing soda from all our diets would be great (spoken as a full on Diet Coke addict) it is not going to fix the "obesity epidemic."  
  2. Just because it is now hard to buy in more than X oz containers doesn't mean people won't consume more than X oz.  Even assuming it was a good idea, the reality of the impact is not likely to be a good return on investment. At best this law makes lip service to removing soda from diets. Frankly, I bet a place like NYC has many ways the soda ban resources could be better used.
  3. I don't think legislation based on singling out "good" food vs. "bad" foods is very wise or a useful long-term plan.  Ten years ago we all *knew* that margarine and skim milk were the healthy choices.  Today we know that the way they process low-fat milk is a bit gross and that margarine is just fake food product in a jar that will probably kill you way faster than a pat of butter on some toast.  Add in that skim milk is just as empty a source of sugar calories as say juice or soda and well, it gets a bit murky as to just what should be banned. What we know to be true about nutrition is constantly evolving (and this is a good thing) so you should be very careful before making food specific mandates.
  4. This doesn't empower people to make better choices, it merely removes opportunities for education.  Legislation that requires more labeling of food, more education about nutrition or better school lunches helps people learn to make better choices.  Pulling a privilege like you punish a petulant child just makes people feel that their political leaders have revoked their choice.  As a corollary to this idea:
  5. There is a certain undertone of public shaming that I find off putting.  The discourse of this policy seems to not so subtly say "being fat is bad and you should feel bad.  As a result we will take away your soda since you are too stupid to save yourself."   This law skirts the cultural belief that being thin, or looking a certain way, is some kind of moral imperative.  Do we have a moral imperative to improve the health of this nation? Yes.  Do we have a moral imperative to ensure that everyone looks a certain way or fits into a certain statistical mold? No.  Should we pass laws based on the fact that fat-hate is the one discrimination that we can all still "enjoy?" No. 
Of course Mississippi has taken a hard tack in the exact opposite direction.   They are trying to pass a law that bans any kind of interference with food production, sales and/or service.  No zoning bans on fast-food, no bans on marketing to kids, no requirements for nutritional information at restaurants...nothing at all to make the consumer think twice.  It this the answer then? Complete food autonomy where no one need be burdened by an over-abundance of information with which to make a choice? No, this won't really work either. 

There must be some middle ground somewhere.  Some public figure somewhere must have an idea about how to increase people's nutritional awareness and access to nutritious food with some kind of "thought-police" enforcement of dietary "standards."  Ms. Obama is on the right track, though her campaign is walking a very fine line between education and fat-shaming, so maybe as a nation we are going to get there.  The first step may be really getting a better grip on the idea that good health comes from good food and activity, factors that may be correlated (but not causative) of lower overall weight.  Only when we actually acknowledge the subtle but important nuance of good health can we even start to legislate in a manner to help all American's be healthy.