On this, we can all agree: Americans are too heavy, with nearly one in three now qualifying as obese. The struggle to find an effective anti-obesity strategy is becoming a tug of war. On one side: those who believe top-down, government-friendly strategies can micromanage where, how, and what you eat. On the other side: those who believe citizens must learn to control their own diets (perhaps with a nudge from public policy).
Parked right in the middle is First Lady Michelle Obama, who often advocates both approaches. But in recent months, she has swung back to the side of micromanagement, publicly and privately urging the National Restaurant Association and its members to curb portion sizes. That’s unfortunate, since her idea is impractical.
Portion inflation is an obvious villain for American obesity. The size of everything from an average bag of chips to a typical fountain-drink serving has grown since the 1960s. Complicating matters: Many fast-food restaurants use pricing models (think McDonald’s now-discontinued Super Size) that enable their customers to dramatically increase the size of their meal at little cost or no cost.
Still, there’s no conspiracy in the shift to bigger portions. Portion sizes grew because consumers wanted more value for their dollar. Any push for centralized portion reduction presumes customers are eager to cut their intake — if only restaurants would hold their forks and do it for them.
That doesn’t seem likely. One telling problem: While fast-food and chain restaurants are prone to offer up ever-larger portions, tens of thousands of independent restaurants and imported suppliers of packaged foods have kept pace with market expectations. How are you going to regulate them? Take what was once a favorite indulgence of mine, the chicken schwarma. Packed with sodium and calories, the best schwarma is found in mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, far from any comfortable offices in Washington. Will those restaurants cut their portions if asked? If they did, what’s to stop people from simply ordering two servings — or maybe a little dessert?
Even if every restaurant cut its portions, consumers are still free to eat what they want to. That freedom is what makes government management of food an earnest but futile strategy for obesity reduction. Only with school lunches is there really any value in central portion controls — and even then, every kid with an allowance is free to cross the street to find an unhealthy alternative.
Personally, I think portion sizes should shrink, but it has to happen because consumers want it that way — or many Americans will simply order more to compensate. If people don’t feel unhealthy food is creating a risk to their health, they won’t change their behavior. If people feel heavier, fattier foods offer better value for their dollar, they’ll buy them in quantity, even if takes more servings to get the quantity desired.
That’s why another top-down approach — mandatory calorie counts in chain restaurants — has proven to be largely ineffective. Of five major studies of this measure, the results are mixed at best. Three studies found average consumers ordered roughly the same number of calories. The other two found only marginal improvements. The most positive results came from a study conducted by the same agency that pushed for the new laws in the first place.
And that’s why we should learn from the work of demand-side advocates such as Republican Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett and Democratic Newark mayor Cory Booker. Mayor Cornett “put his city on a diet” in 2006. Cory Booker was appointed as a vice-chair of the Partnership for a Healthy America, which is associated with the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. Days later, Booker wrote a remarkable article attacking himself as a hypocrite for gaining weight while in office.
In typical Booker style, he’s now posting public weight-loss targets for himself and inspiring thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers to eat better and exercise regularly. He’s also personally leading his city’s staff in a shared weight-loss campaign. Mayor Cornett’s campaign gives out free pedometers, offers tips on local exercise options, and tracks participant progress online. As of late April, some 45,000 Oklahoma City residents have reported losing over 750,000 pounds to Cornett’s website, www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com.
This bully-pulpit approach might not be paternalistic enough for those who need new laws, new taxes, and new bureaucracies to satisfy their hunger for action. Yet the bully pulpit has a decisive advantage over the alternatives. Politicians can’t control your diet or exercise habits from Washington. In contrast, all who enlist in these civic fitness campaigns can actually control the outcome of their efforts.
— David Gratzer, a physician, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.