USDA’s War on Potatoes
When it comes to food, the government should not dictate our choices.


Obesity is far too complex and multifactorial to be amenable to such simplistic and draconian efforts as getting rid of potatoes. The genetic underpinnings of obesity probably originate with the fundamental evolutionary pressures that have shaped humans. As a species, we are programmed to accumulate fat against the possibility that food will not be available for a prolonged period, a basic survival mechanism that drives over-eating. In animals, there is even emerging evidence that overweight mothers produce overweight children. We often see obesity running in human families. This is due not only to the genes that families share, but also to a phenomenon called epigenetic programming: the modification of genetic information by environmental factors. Nurture plays a role as well. Learning good eating habits, exercising, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress all contribute to effective weight management. In the long term, weight-control diets and pills seldom work any better than banning potatoes; there’s an old quip about having lost 500 pounds — 20 pounds at a time, regaining the weight in between.

People used to say, “Hey, it’s a free country.” But since then, we’ve moved more toward a paternalistic nanny state. When it comes to food, with very few exceptions, the government should not dictate our choices. Limitations on sugar-laden soft drinks, French fries, and potato chips are a preemption of our right of self-determination and undermine efforts to teach young people that the individual is ultimately responsible for what he chooses to consume. The cure for the obesity epidemic is not government diktats; Thomas Jefferson observed that “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” That includes the occasional buttery, cheesy baked potato.

— Bruce M. Chassy is a Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.


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