Many moons ago I got into an online debate with a bodybuilder I nicknamed “Cliffy” because his know-it-all attitude reminded me of the mailman from Cheers. As someone who’d never been fat, Cliffy was convinced fat people are simply weak-willed — unlike, say, Cliffy. In other words, they’re fat because of a character flaw.
I pointed out that there’s been a sharp rise in the number of kids and even babies who are obese and asked Cliffy if it’s because kids these days lack the discipline of kids from previous generations.
Blame the kids? Gosh no, Cliffy wouldn’t do that. After explaining that I’m a fat, lazy old man, Cliffy insisted that kids these days are obese because their parents are feeding them too much. It’s the parents who have the character flaw.
I pointed out that my girls are both lean and healthy, thus proving that my wife and I are good parents of fine character. We obviously don’t feed the girls too much, and that’s why they’re lean. So how do we accomplish this feat of parental responsibility? Do we calculate how many calories they burn per day and feed them accordingly? Nope. I have no idea how many calories they burn in a day. I have no idea how many calories they consume in a day. We keep our girls lean and healthy by feeding them as much as they want to eat every time they tell us they’re hungry. Every. Single. Time.
When Alana was having growth spurts, she’d sometimes get out of bed after midnight and tell me (because I’m the family night owl) that she was hungry. So I’d feed her. If she was still hungry, I’d feed her more. But most of the time, the girls don’t eat all that much. They usually walk away from the dinner table with food still on their plates.
While out grocery shopping a couple of years ago, Chareva and I ran into a mom whose son was in Sara’s class. The mom, who struck me as a nice lady, told us she was going to push her son to play more outdoors during summer vacation because he was getting fat. So of course I sneaked a peek in her grocery cart. You can guess what I saw: skim milk, jugs of apple and orange juice, bread, noodles, Cheerios, fat-free yogurt cups and plenty of other food-like products with “LOW-FAT!” stamped on the label.
This wasn’t a careless mom. This was a mom trying to do the right thing, buying products she’d been told were good for her son’s weight and health. But he was getting fat. That’s chemistry, not character. The boy was living on foods that made him hungrier than he needed to be.
Our girls were (and are) living on meats, eggs, seafood, fruits, green vegetables, nuts, olives, full-fat dairy foods, eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash and some rice now and then. Their appetites are naturally controlled by a diet rich in nutrients and low in refined carbohydrates. They’re only as hungry as they need to be. Once again, it’s a matter of chemistry, not character. There’s no discipline involved. They don’t restrict their calories to stay lean, and we don’t have to push them to play outside. Sara decided to talk a walk today and carry fresh water to the chickens even though it was only 20 degrees outside and school was canceled because of an ice storm. When I asked why she volunteered for the duty, she replied, “I just felt like it.”
(The same ice storm knocked out our internet service, which is why this post is late.)
When I started this series in January, I wrote that most of the weight-loss plans we impose on ourselves and others try to impose on us are doomed to fail because they’re based on the notion that losing weight is a matter of character. By impose on us, I’m of course talking about the brilliant ideas that come from various governments. Setting aside my libertarian belief that (as libertarian writer Jacob Sullum puts it) the size of your butt is none of the government’s business, would those brilliant ideas work?
I hardly think so. Let’s look at a few of them.
This official from the U.K. health system floated the idea that doctors need to stop pussyfooting around with the language and just tell fat patients that they’re too fat. A professor of ethics in the U.S. stepped it up a notch and insisted we need to start shaming fat people.
Riiiiiiiight. Because fat people don’t know they’re fat and aren’t properly ashamed of themselves. If we just shame them enough, they’ll develop some character and stop eating too much. It’s not as if appetite and energy balance at the cellular level figure into this or anything.
I’ve got news for both of these dunces: fat people know they’re fat, and most of them hate it. Most of them have tried over and over to lose weight, but failed because they were given bad advice on how to do it. To put it in terms of my last post, they expended plenty of effort, but the effort wasn’t effective.
If we start shaming them, we won’t end up with fewer fat people … but we will end up with more fat people who are depressed or neurotic. Fewer of them will visit doctors for checkups or to find out what that funny-looking lump is. They’ll avoid doctors to avoid the lectures and the shaming. That already happens, in fact. And by the way, raising their cortisol levels by shaming them won’t help the weight-loss efforts one bit.
Okay, so let’s skip outright shaming in favor of the kinder, gentler form of government meddling favored by CSPI and plenty of other do-gooders: calorie-count menu boards and can’t-miss calorie labels on food packages. In that case, we’re not assuming fat people are remorseless gluttons who need to feel ashamed. Nope, now we’re just assuming they’re stupid.
The belief here is that fat people go to fast-food restaurants and order a double cheeseburger, large fries and large soda because it’s never occurred to them that the calorie count might be too high for one meal. So let’s pass a law mandating a calorie count right there on the menu board where they can’t miss it. The menu board will then serve as a nagging parent, almost yelling “Hey, dummy! Look at all the calories in that meal! Order the chicken salad instead!”
During a talking-head-show debate about the calorie-count menu boards I saw awhile back, a skinny news anchor opined, “Well, if I see that the double cheeseburger meal is 1,000 calories and the chicken salad is 300 calories, I’m going for the chicken salad.” Yes, of course you would, Miss Skinniness. That would be a satisfying meal for you because that’s how your body chemistry works. But if an obese person ordered that meal because the menu board shamed him into it, the end result would be that he’d eat more later to make up the difference. That’s what the research shows.
Real-world studies have already demonstrated that confronting people with calorie counts doesn’t work, and it’s a wonder anyone believes otherwise. Jacob Sullum (who appeared in Fat Head) once angered Yale professor Kelly Brownell during a debate by pointing out that Brownell is very fat. Sullum’s a nice guy, and as he told me off-camera when I interviewed him, he wouldn’t normally make a point of someone’s girth. But Brownell (a CSPI board member) is all in favor of mandatory calorie counts on menus, which means he thinks people are fat because they don’t have enough information to make smart choices.
And yet Brownell is morbidly obese. Are we supposed to believe that a Yale professor doesn’t have enough information to make smart choices? Are we supposed to believe that a guy who wants to use the power of government to (ahem) help obese people lose weight doesn’t care that he’s obese himself? Are we supposed to believe that a Yale professor who wrote a book about obesity isn’t aware that even people who go out of their way to count calories rarely lose weight and keep it off as a result? If calorie-counting doesn’t work for them, why the hell would it work for people who are merely confronted with calorie counts? I’m not sure which bugs me more: the hypocrisy or the ridiculousness of believing in a theory that clearly hasn’t worked for Brownell himself.
When standardized food labels were mandated by the FDA in the 1990s, the media were full of rah-rah articles about how Americans would make smarter food choices as a result. That was millions of new cases of obesity and type 2 diabetes ago. So now the FDA is doing exactly what Thomas Sowell described in The Vision of the Anointed: holding up failure as evidence that we need to do the same thing again, only bigger. Look at these quotes from an article about the FDA’s newest labels:
The Food and Drug Administration for the first time in two decades will propose major changes to nutrition labels on food packages, putting calorie counts in large type and adjusting portion sizes to reflect how much Americans actually eat.
Millions of Americans pay attention to food labels, and the changes are meant to make them easier to understand — a critical step in an era when more than one-third of adults are obese, public health experts say. The epidemic has caused rates of diabetes to soar, and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke.
On Thursday, the Obama administration promoted the proposed labeling changes at an event at the White House. At an anniversary ceremony for her “Let’s Move” campaign aimed at reducing obesity, Michelle Obama talked about how hard it is to understand what is in packaged food, and how the changes were a way to demystify that.
Well, there you have it: people are stupid. They’re confused by the serving sizes, so they willy-nilly eat too much. Oh, and they have bad eyesight, too — that’s why we need to put the calorie counts IN LARGER TYPE. Appetite and biochemistry have nothing to do with it. Clear up the confusion over serving sizes and list those calorie counts IN LARGER TYPE, and the dummies will finally eat less and lose weight, thanks to better information – the kind of information that helped Kelly Brownell look good in a swimsuit.
Offering de-confusing information AND LARGER TYPE is about all the government can do (for now) in the case of adults who are fat because they’re stupid and have poor eyesight. But if we’re talking about kids … hey, now we’ve got a captive audience, at least for school lunches. We can by-gosh impose some discipline on the little tykes by forcing them to put the magical fruits-and-vegetables-and-whole-grains on their plates and limiting their fat and calorie intake.
If you don’t believe the new-and-improved school lunches are an attempt by do-gooders to impose discipline on parents and kids who lack character, take a gander at some quotes from an editorial in the Springfield, Illinois newspaper my mom clipped and sent me:
We hope this is not the first step in an effort to significantly weaken or do away with existing school lunch nutritional guidelines – something some Republicans are hoping for on the grounds that the rules amount to government “overreach.”
Goodness, no. Let’s not weaken guidelines that have done such wonders for kids’ waistlines and overall health in the past 30 years.
The healthy school lunch rules stem from the Obama administration’s 2012 initiative to reduce childhood obesity throughout the country.
And as we know, government programs always achieve their stated goals. The Dietary Goals for Americans, to name just one example.
Adults who grew up in the ’70s, ‘60s and earlier most likely were subjected by their parents to such homemade dinnertime delights as liver and onions, tuna casserole, beef stroganoff, meat loaf, lima beans, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. And what happened if children declined the dinner put before them? Usually they remained at the table until they ate it, cold or not, under their parents’ careful watch. No way were parents allowing finicky children to leave without eating what they considered a reasonable and nutritious meal.
Yet here we are in 2014, grappling with a troubling childhood obesity epidemic but allowing children to reject nutritionally balanced fruit-and-vegetable laden lunches that are designed to be filling and healthy. No only are children rejecting the food outright, parents and schools are actually complaining to elected officials about the guidelines.
Oh, no! You mean those stupid parents have the unmitigated gall to complain to their betters in government?! Heaven forbid.
The editorial goes on to wonder why kids and parents would complain about the fabulous fare being offered in the local schools. Here are some lunch items they offer as evidence: baked tater tots, chilled applesauce, whole-grain spaghetti, garlic bread, bananas, chilled pears, turkey corn dogs, soft-baked cookies.
And students can always get seconds on fruits and vegetables to help fill them up. Sounds good, right? Most adults would welcome such varied and nutritious lunches each day.
Fat adults who want to try yet another diet that won’t work no doubt would welcome those foods, yes.
As Dr. Mike Eades would put it, the dumbth is astounding. Painful as it will be, let’s examine just those brief bits of a long-winded editorial written by nutritional ignoramuses.
The lunches are designed to be filling and healthy. Yes, and a jackass is a racehorse designed by a government committee. Newsflash, ignoramuses: one of the biggest complaints kids have about those lunches is they’re still hungry after eating. It doesn’t matter that the lunches were designed to be filling. They’re not filling.
But we mustn’t let the kids decide if they’re satisfied … and we mustn’t let their parents (who have the gall to complain to elected officials) make that decision either, according to the ignoramuses who wrote the editorial. Parents in the 1970s and earlier were responsible, you see. They made their kids eat that nutritious food, broccoli and all, as the editorial writers reminded us. They didn’t complain to their elected officials, either. That’s why kids weren’t fat back then.
But today’s parents, unlike yesteryear’s parents, obviously can’t be trusted to decide what their kids should eat. We know that because too many kids are fat. So we need the wise folks at the USDA to step in and replace today’s parents as the responsible decision-maker. In other words, we need government to impose discipline because today’s kids and parents lack character.
Here’s what different about today’s parents vs. parents from the 1960s: parents in the 1960s hadn’t been told by government officials that fat and cholesterol are killers. Parents in the 1960s didn’t believe chocolate-flavored skim milk is a healthier choice than whole milk – and neither did school officials. More parents in the 1960s believed that sugar and refined starches make people fat, not dietary fat. No parents concerned that their daughters were screaming themselves silly over the Beatles were also trying to limit saturated fat in their kids’ diets to 7% of total calories.
In other words, the “good” parents who served liver and onions, tuna casserole, beef stroganoff, meat loaf, lima beans, broccoli and Brussels sprouts didn’t have the same dietary beliefs as government officials who order schools to serve baked tater tots, chilled applesauce, whole-grain spaghetti, garlic bread, bananas, chilled pears, turkey corn dogs and soft-baked cookies. (With unlimited seconds on fat-free vegetables!) Send a USDA official back to the family dinner table in 1960, and he’d chide the parents for serving too much beef and other high-fat food. How the editorial writers failed to notice the contradiction is beyond me.
If they did notice the contradiction – or better yet, if officials at the USDA noticed the contradiction – then perhaps we’d get somewhere. Perhaps the do-gooders would wonder why parents in the 1960s didn’t have to put their kids on calorie-restricted diets and push them to play outside to keep them from getting fat. Perhaps they’d ask themselves if the types of foods parents served to their kids back then had something to do with it. Perhaps they’d notice that in that old episode of The Andy Griffith Show I mentioned in my latest speech, Andy said he’d fill in the chinks with another bite of meatloaf while Barney told Aunt Bea he was being careful not to overdo the glucose and carbohydrates.
In other words, perhaps the idiots running the show would finally begin to realize that we have a problem with childhood obesity and diabetes because of chemistry, not character.
I think I’m done with this series. Here are links to the other posts for those who asked: