Can the Government Make you Skinny?

You may have noticed over the last couple of years that menus at fast food chains are now required to display calorie content. A number of vending machines likewise cheerfully detail the same information, to forewarn you against the perils of eating Doritos.

What’s so interesting about this development is that it implies fat people don’t actually realize that they’re fat. Or, perhaps, they have no idea how they became fat. Uncle Sam has intervened on their behalf to educate them. Educate them skinny.

Similar governmental campaigns are underway against obesity elsewhere. New York and Philadelphia have outlawed trans fat, because it is so horrendously bad for you. (They have not banned tobacco, which is also poisonous. But keeping it legal makes sense if you follow through with the logic. If our goal is to make people skinny, the last thing you want to do is deprive chain smokers of cigarettes.)

Here’s an interesting hypothesis: I think overweight people already know they’re obese. And they probably even know the difference between a Big Mac and steamed vegetables. I’m not sure it’s within the government’s ability to make people slender and willowy (shy of wrecking our economy and instituting low-carb breadlines).

Fat people already know they’re fat. How could they not? Our society is horrendously cruel to the obese. In television, film and literature “fat” is used as a signal of laziness. Overweight people statistically earn less than their twiggy contemporaries. I know people who instinctively resent overweight folks simply for being overweight. As if being lithe and attractive is some implicit aspect of John Locke’s social contract, and chubby people have willfully broken their duty to society.

We can probably all agree on this point, that fat people don’t need to be informed about their predicament. So let’s move on to the role of government assistance in creating washboard tummies.

Obligatory calorie labeling is reasonably benign, but ultimately pointless. If someone honestly doesn’t realize that a double quarter pounder with cheese is more likely to perpetuate their obesity than eating a bag of carrots, then they’re probably not observant enough to notice mandated calorie displays. Such a person is not awaiting a federally-induced epiphany.

What about more heavy-handed approaches? Cigarettes and excessive alcohol are bad for you, so we make a point of taxing them to “nudge” people away from poor health decisions. Yet nicotine addiction and alcohol abuse persist. Research shows that increased taxes on cigarettes and alcohol minimally influences moderate users, but not heavy drinkers and smokers (the ones who ostensibly need help).

Heavy smokers and drinkers do not alter their habits, they simply spend more of their income on the taxes punishing their bad decisions. Thus higher cigarette taxes don’t trick chain smokers into a healthy lifestyle, it just makes them poor. Good job.

The above is called “government paternalism,” and it’s predicated on the notion that you are not an adult capable of making decisions for yourself. People are idiots, so the government needs to watch over them by doing things like ordering motorcyclists to wear helmets.

The counter school of thought is called “personal responsibility.”

A major problem with paternalism is that relying on the government to make up for human shortcomings would require a government not staffed by shortcoming humans. Until we elect a Google Algorithm to Congress, legislators are subject to the same foibles we are. Nobody becomes Mr. Spock simply by virtue of a federal payroll.

That may sound reducto absurdum, but the government is already making people obese. Right now. We give billions of tax payers’ dollars in subsidies to corn farmers every year. This makes corn artificially cheap. Since corn is ludicrously inexpensive, manufacturers use it constantly, and as a result high fructose corn syrup is in everything from soda to salad dressing. High fructose corn syrup, incidentally, contributes to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Obligatory calorie displays might seem like an odd thing to pick a fight over. But what would better promote public health? Obligatory calorie displays on vending machines, or gutting corn subsidies to staunch the tidal wave of high fructose corn syrup in our diets?

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 Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.


  • Teresa
    August 30, 2012 - 10:17 am | Permalink

    My thought process whist going to lunch…

    “Man, I am poor AGAIN this week?! This bloody economy… bitch bitch bitch… Hmmm… so what shall I eat… Healthy awesomely good for me salad?! which costs $12… crap… “Dollar Menu” at Mcdonalds… $2… hmmmmm… Hello big yellow arches.”

  • BADKarma
    August 31, 2012 - 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Nice to see you’ve guzzled the “HFCS is POOOOOIIIIIIISSSSSOOONNNNN!!!!!! (BOOOGA, BOOOOGAAAAAA!!!!)” bullshit.

    Unfortunate ending to an otherwise good piece. For the record: As far as your body is concerned, sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar. Your body treats HFCS EXACTLY THE SAME as it treats sucrose, lactose, fructose, or any other sugar.

    The “research” about the supposed ookie-booboo-ness of HFCS was actually done on PURE FRUCTOSE, and the AUTHOR OF THE RESEARCH HIMSELF has repeatedly debunked the notion that his findings can in any way be applied to HFCS.

    Eating too much and not getting enough exercise is what causes obesity, and diabetes has numerous causes, not a single one of which is attributable to HFCS OR table sugar.

    You really need to stop pimping the Epicuritan Jihad’s most pernicious lie.

    • Deckard
      August 31, 2012 - 4:22 pm | Permalink


      I don’t think this has to be a matter of corn syrup being any better or worse than regular sugar (I’m of the opinion that it’s all effectively the same). It’s that subsidies make it cheaper than it otherwise would be, so it becomes an attractive way for companies to make food taste good.

      Note- not saying that sugar would be healthier. Let’s say that a food company has several options to improve sales. One is to completely reformulate recipes, or even invent new ones — a costly, risky undertaking. Another is to add ore increase the quantity of a tasty ingredient that is relatively inexpensive. Unless the food company is hoping to sell to organic-only consumers, they’ll probably go with the later option.

      The point here is that subsidies make a particular ingredient — in this case, corn and corn products — artificially inexpensive, giving food makers incentive to use it rather than other, healthier options. I’m sure if we had a powerful sugar lobby that could bring in subsidies, we’d be in the same fix. Likewise with lard, or, I don’t know, salt or something.

      • Heaton
        September 1, 2012 - 9:42 pm | Permalink

        “The point here is that subsidies make a particular ingredient — in this case, corn and corn products — artificially inexpensive, giving food makers incentive to use it rather than other, healthier options. I’m sure if we had a powerful sugar lobby that could bring in subsidies, we’d be in the same fix. Likewise with lard, or, I don’t know, salt or something.”

        My point exactly! Thank you for succinctly answering on my behalf.

  • Schlens
    September 1, 2012 - 3:59 am | Permalink

    Teresa: Have you ever thought about fixing your own meals? Oh, right, that would effectively make you responsible for yourself, thus making it impossible to blame anybody else, right?

    • Heaton
      September 1, 2012 - 9:41 pm | Permalink

      I suspect Teresa was speaking facetiously, in reference to the malt liquor cartoon. firmly promotes personal responsibility.

  • Rural AR Mom
    September 6, 2012 - 7:15 pm | Permalink

    1. My body might treat it the same, but corn syrup IS NOT sugar. It does not taste the same, which makes it less satisfying to my palate. (I am old enough that sodas and candy bars were still frequently made with real sugar when I was a kid – today’s Snickers just do not compare.)

    2. Corn syrup (or even artificial sweeteners) are NOT necessary in most of the items in which they are found.

    2.A. Take flavored yogurt: You know what tastes good? Plain, unflavored yogurt + plain, unsugared fruit. Can I find that? Hell, no. Either it’s good yogurt packaged with a sugary “fruit blend” on the side, or it’s blended yogurt that contains either corn syrup & gelatin or aspartame. So I have to buy the yogurt and fruit separately. This means my yogurt costs more, because plain, unflavored is the same price as flavored, plus I now have to buy fruit. WTF?! As a consumer, this makes no sense to me. (As a former business owner and sales person, “Brilliant!”)

    2.B. Take salad dressings. I can mix Milk, Mayonnaise (whipped eggs & oil) and a variety of spices and herbs from my cabinet and make a damn good ranch. Or mix oil & vinegar & spices and make a damn good Italian (like) dressing. Or I can buy it from the store and find that one of the major ingredients is corn syrup. Or fructose. And that dressing will be much cheaper than what I can make the same volume for at home, because it is full of a cheap liquid filler.

    2. C. Baked goods. I use very little sugar when I make most baked goods at home – in cookies and the like I substitute natural apple sauce. My bread recipe does not include any sugar at all, nor do my biscuit or cornbread recipes. But all of those items have added sugar in the store.

    2.D. (Last one, I swear.) Peanut butter. Most commercial peanut butter has sugar, HFCS, or fructose added (along with extra partially-hydrogenated oils – I guess peanuts aren’t oily enough). My grandpa used to raise his own peanuts, roast them, and make peanut butter. Ingreadients: Peanuts. Sometimes a little salt, but normally not. And he poured off much of the peanut oil that would settle on the top, instead of mixing it in. It tasted fabulous.

    In all of these examples, the sugar is there presumably either to improve taste or cut costs by cheaply increasing volume. (*shudder* – Sudden flashback to my stepmom adding crumbled stale bread to her fried potatoes to make them stretch farther.)

    So better or worse (as previously pointed out) isn’t the question. It’s whether such sweeteners are completely overused in commercial products. And they are.

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