Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fighting Fat with Information

Crusaders against our obesity "epidemic" are always trying to get people more information. They want restaurants to post the calorie content of dishes, schools to teach more nutrition, food labels to carry more data, public service advertisements to explain the dangers of fat or refined sugar or whatever. But there is very little evidence that any of this works. And now this:
It is one of the boldest and most controversial tactics in the battle against childhood obesity: A growing number of schools are monitoring their students’ weight and sending updates home, much like report cards.

Nine states require schools to send such notifications, sometimes called “B.M.I. letters,” or less charitably “fat letters.” But a new study of the first state to adopt the practice shows that the letters have had almost no effect, at least on older teenagers.

The disappointing results not only raise questions about the efficacy of the letters but highlight the challenges schools face more generally in addressing adolescent obesity.
Fighting fat with information is just the latest version of a fallacy that goes back to ancient Greek philosophy, that people will never knowingly do themselves harm. Ancient philosophers always held that doing wrong was at least as harmful to the doer as to the wronged, so the way to improve behavior was just to explain to people how and why this was so. I found this idea baffling as a student, and I still do.

People do not act rationally. People -- and all other mammals, so far as we can tell -- are driven mainly by emotions. Americans overeat to cope with stress, depression, boredom, anxiety, and our other manifold mental ills. In my experience skinny people are mainly the ones whose anxieties make them unable to eat, as opposed to people like me whose anxieties make them crave cookies. Plus, eating is fun, and few of us get enough fun.

The whole apparatus of "getting out the facts" about calories and nutrition is as baffling to me as Stoic ethics.

There was some news recently that said Americans have actually begun consuming fewer calories over the past decade or so, and that the steady rise in our weights has leveled off. So perhaps over the long run the whole blizzard of alarms about fat and health has had some effect. But to think that just posting facts will change behavior is dumb.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

In my eyes, a huge, huge factor in why many people eat badly is economic.

If you can't afford good food, you eat bad food.
If you can afford good food but don't have the time to prepare it, you eat bad food. If you can afford good food and even have the time to prepare it, but you're stressed or otherwise psychologically troubled, you eat bad food.

Basically the more money you have, the less strain you're under, the easier it is eat well. People don't eat badly because they're ignorant of how bad it is - they eat badly because it's cheap, quick, and comforting.

They have sugary boxed cereal for breakfast because stuff like fresh fruit and yogurt is expensive to buy, hard to keep around the house without spoiling, and even harder to stomache when you're operating on five hours of sleep and are dragging yourself out of bed to go to a job you hate. They choose to get greasy takeout for dinner because they're tired after work and don't want to have to run to the store for ingredients, or spend a decent chunk of their limited free time cooking, or even just think all that hard about what they want to eat. They rummage in their freezer for a cheap, preservative filled dessert before bed because it's literally the highlight of their entire crummy day.

It takes a lot of self control to eat well, particularly when that means cutting corners elsewhere to be able to afford the cost, time, and effort involved. Sure, you could always spend your free time clipping coupons, planning your meals a week in advance, and learning how to cook new and healthier recipes - but most people don't find that even remotely relaxing or worthwhile compared to watching a movie, reading a book, spending time with loved ones, and generally just destressing after a full work shift at the end of the week.

People who work fewer hours for larger paychecks have a much easier job of finding the time and resources to eat well. If you're comfortably well enough, you're far more likely to be a bit thinner. If you struggle even just a little bit, you're far more likely to be a bit heavier.