Beyond the obesity argument

Much has been made about local and state governments stepping in to ban use or sale of some foods, drinks, or compounds in foods. The argument is that bans on items like trans fats in restaurants, sugary drinks and junk food in school vending machines or even fast food outlets within a certain radius of schools is in response to the growing obesity crisis and a responsible approach to promoting more nutritious diets. Healthier diets, of course, also help reduce incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases.

New York is now seeking to prohibit use of food stamps to buy items such as soda. The government already has an extensive list of what can and cannot be purchased with food stamps, and changing it will require a Congressional amendment to the current law.

There’s no doubt that many Americans need to make healthier food choices. However, that’s hard to do if someone lives in a neighborhood where finding fresh produce is rare, and the supermarket vegetables rot within a day. Economics plays a huge role in what people eat. A box of mac and cheese is more filling and can be stretched further than say, broiled fish and fresh green beans. Anyone that’s been in a supermarket knows that soda is cheaper than orange juice, and white bread is cheaper than whole grain.

If kids grow up learning poor eating and nutritional habits, it’s likely those habits will stick around when they’re adults. If fresh fruits and vegetables, or affordable entrees like fish are not available in the neighborhood supermarket, of course consumers will buy what is there – high fat, high sugar, high carb alternatives. It takes more than a ban on Mickey D’s near schools to promote good nutrition.

The availability of healthy options, educating parents and children about affordable, healthy alternatives, providing access to those alternatives, and making neighborhoods safe so people can get out and exercise or play, must all be part of the obesity reduction strategy. Cultural norms and traditions should also be accounted for – changing ingrained habits is tough.

If government wants involvement in Americans’ dietary habits, they need to step up and find comprehensive solutions to the entire problem – banning soda is a stop gap, news-bite worthy response, but doesn’t address the underlying issues. Otherwise, that old adage of “you are what you eat” is never going to change.

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