TCS Daily


Keystone Food Cops

By John Luik - July 7, 2006 12:00 AM

At any given moment almost two-thirds of American men and more than three quarters of American women are dieting or watching their weight, at least according to a Center for Disease Control survey back in 1999. (Not much has likely changed since then.) And no doubt the remaining few who are not dieting are either thinking about it or think they are thin enough not to care. And while there are no statistics, the number of American adults who have never thought about or attempted losing weight can probably be counted on one hand.

It's also probably safe to assume that virtually all of those millions of dieters understand that for their weight loss efforts to have any chance of success they must change the amount and kinds of food they are eating. Most people think about their weight a lot of the time, and most understand the connection between eating less, eating differently and weighing less.

But apparently these common sense ideas about eating and dieting have somehow escaped the notice of the Food and Drug Administration. It has just released a 136-page report from something called the Keystone Forum about "improving consumers ability to manage caloric intake" when eating away from home. That amounts to government speak for how it can change the way Americans eat in restaurants.

The guiding assumption behind the FDA report appears to be that Americans don't understand the connection between how much and what kinds of food they eat and their weight. Ergo, the job of the government and the restaurant industry is to educate them and subtly change their food preferences in order to make them thin.

Apparently, all those dieting Americans missed the bit that excessive food consumption can make you fat. They haven't heard that restaurant meals contain calories -- in some cases lots of them. And this blind ignorance is why they're overweight or obese.

Only the people who really appear pretty ignorant are the food cops themselves. The government's own data contradicts the assumption that ignorance is the reason people are fat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Diet and Health Knowledge Survey, for example, shows most Americans understand the facts of basic nutrition, know how to make food choices based on fat, fiber and cholesterol content and realize that certain foods might be linked to health problems. And as Paul Campos noted in The Obesity Myth, "The government's own statistics show that ... between 88 and 93% of all obese Americans are dieting," which would indicate that they don't really need the government and restaurants playing nanny.

Coming from the FDA, one would have thought that the Keystone Forum's profound truths about eating out and being fat would have some sort of evidence supporting them. But even that isn't the case.

The report makes plain that while science is important in fighting obesity "science alone is not the deciding factor." The reason for this caveat becomes obvious as one reads the report since it very quickly admits on page 6 that "there does not exist a conclusive body of evidence establishing a causal link between the availability of consumption of away-from-home foods and obesity."

So if cause and effect isn't the basis for action, what is? To do something just to do something?

These Keystone food folks have to realize that this sort of thing tends to under-impress, especially as the basis for sweeping and highly controversial policies that would put more layers of government regulation between every American and his or her stomach. So that may explain their fudging the issue with a lot of "preliminary research" that supposedly shows that eating out equals eating bad and eating fat. But other words for preliminary research is this -- unproven, unverified, untested and incomplete. In short, it doesn't quite work.

Part of the problem is that the evidence tends to show that people who eat out often consume more calories when they do so, but that isn't the same thing as showing that eating out makes one fat.

The other part of the problem is that there is considerable evidence that shows that eating out is not associated with getting or being fat. For example a recent Canadian study which looked at the eating and physical activity habits of 4,298 school children, found that eating at a fast food restaurant was not a statistically significant risk factor for obesity, even in children who ate in these restaurants more than three times a week.

But say that the FDA were right about the connection between eating out and getting fat, that still doesn't mean that the solutions they propose -- changing the foods restaurants serve, the marketing they engage in, and the portions they offer, to cite some of the more controversial, have any chance of working.

And the reasons are obvious, though they have escaped the FDA's notice.

For one thing, despite all of that dieting and all the changes in food quantity and type that it implies, most dieters are unable to maintain either their new weight or their new eating pattern. As Campos points out, the vast majority of dieters gain back all of the weight they lose and many of these regain more weight than they lost.

Furthermore, a number of studies have shown that one of the FDA's preferred " solutions" -- listing the calories of all restaurant food -- makes almost no difference to food choice. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association the very week that the FDA report was released, showed that between 44% and 57% of people surveyed said that were unlikely to use calorie information about restaurant meals. Those that do use labels do so in ways not intended by the FDA, as a restaurant study in England demonstrated when it found that providing nutritional information to customers moved customers away from the "lower fat" option. A study in an Army cafeteria found no statistically significant difference in sales of "healthy" foods after the introduction of nutritional labeling.

Indeed, why would anyone think that telling Americans the caloric content of their restaurant meals or trying to engineer the portion sizes or types of food that restaurants serve would reduce obesity when all of the consumers' own fat consciousness and desperate dieting attempts have failed to do so?

But the big problem with the Keystone food cops is that they presume to know more than they do. According to the report, the folks that Keystone got together -- all 40 of them -- decided that the "consumer preferences for large quantities of calorie-dense foods should shift to an emphasis on intake appropriate to an individual's needs and to increased consumption of foods lower in caloric density." In plain English, these 40 folks convened by the government have concluded -- without any definitive science -- that the food that most of us eat in restaurants is somehow bad for us. And not content with this paternalism -- they are prepared to consider a variety of measures, including using the coercive power of government to make Americans eat not what they want but what the food cops want them to eat.

Perhaps the Keystone food cops were out to lunch when another survey in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that found 70% of the 1,750 adults surveyed believed that the government had no business telling people what to eat. They should consider it.

John Luik is writing a book on health policy.

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8 Comments

Follow the money, and you will find lawyers.
My guess is that the Keystone Forum's primary reason for existence is to establish a link - real or not - between fast food and obesity. Establishing this link will allow trial lawyers to go absolutely wild filing class-action lawsuits.

There have been two factors stopping a rash of Big Tobacco-style lawsuits against fast food restaurants:

First, the lack of clear evidence demonstrating that frequent consumption of fast food causes obesity rather than the bad habits that the frequent consumption of fast food implies.

Second, trouble making the case that fast food companies are negligent for selling people the food that they ask for without additional nutritional information or taking the customer's weight in to account. This requires making the case that fourteen year-old clerks ought to make a decision as to whether or not someone is too fat to eat their Big Mac. Either that, or that a physician should be on staff at every fast-food outlet in the country, and everyone should fill out a full medical-history before pulling up to window #1.

Hopefully, these lawsuits will be laughed out of court. After all, everyone clearly knows that fast food is not granola and celery (Both organic, of course). The concept that some pimple-faced kid should tell me whether or not I can have a chicken sandwich gets me a little riled, and I doubt any restaurant would even attempt it. The only danger occurs if enough fat people on the jury decide that they would rather blame Ronald McDonald than themselves for their weight.

They likely will
That is the nature of people as well; to find someone else to blame.

"The only danger occurs if enough fat people on the jury decide that they would rather blame Ronald McDonald than themselves for their weight."

It may take a while, but I figure that is exactly what will happen if we continue down this muddy, unpaved road.

jumping like a liberal
The post says 90% of obese people are dieting, albiet unsuccessfuly. Some information might help them: how many calories they need, how many are in the foods they are eating, and which foods they can switch to if they want to get less. This is not "the government telling people what to eat".

Many bloggers complain about posts that conjecture (imagine) facts then rant about them. Here's an example:

> My guess is that the Keystone Forum's primary reason
> for existence is to establish a link - real or not -
> between fast food and obesity.

Jumping to conclusions here, aren't we. I don't know everyone in the Forum, but I know a few. They want to help people become healthier (possibly by eating less fast food) and (being human) get their names on an important document.

Is ignorance the cause of obesity?
Dieters know a lot about calorie contents of foods. Posting amounts would add to anxiety and guilt, but would not be effective for weight loss. Several surveys show that fatter people actually know MORE about nutrition than thin people. Most thin people don't think about wha the eat. The typical fat person has read dozens of diet books and keeps up to date on nutrition. Granted, some of what they have "learned" is misinformation. But setting government mandates and limits on restaurant meals will do nothing to make people thin.

Ignorance is no excuse - The information is already available!
All of the information that the Keystone Forum and LiberalGoodman think should be made available to fast-food consumers is already very easily available and accessible.

As a diabetic since the age of fourteen, I have done a lot of carbohydrate counting during my life. This was made easier almost a decade ago when all of the nutritional information for fast food was put online. Today, you can Google any restaurannt's name and "Nutritional Information" and you will be able to find their own, up to date information. Also, you can go to a clearinghouse websiite like www.nutritiondata.com.

If the internet is beyond you, just ask at the counter or drive-up window. These restaurants have made this information available to anybody who wants it in hard-copy form for years.

I would urge people to read the recommendations on the Keystone Forum's website if you are interested in this. Most of the ideas are more of the same stuff we are already spending billions on with, as Mr. Luik's article points out, little or no effect. However, some of them are dangerous for more reasons than trial lawyers.

The Keystone Forum and Implied Reguatory Threats
The Keystone Forum is the latest example of what I like to call "Protection Racket Regulation." When two large goons in ill-fitting suits show up at the door to your establishment and tell you that you should give them some money to prevent fires, bricks through the window, and similar mayhem, you know you are being shaken down by a protection racket.

When the government issues a report like this and makes "suggestions" about what you should do to promote healthy eating, they are doing the same thing. They are threatening you with regulation if you do not do what they say. How many drugs has the FDA "suggested" be taken off the market, only to have the companies do just that. (Excellent article: "Good Drugs, Bad Rap" by Henry I. Miller on this website.) The fact that these threats are generally not very public only implied provides two primary benefits:

1) Deniability: If a popular drug or food item is taken off the market the FDA can deny responsibility. After all, it was the company that took the action, not the government. If the FDA suggests that exceptionally fat people should be steered towards healthier foods by clerks, all of the bad will is created between the company and the exceptionally fat people, not between them and the government.

2) Covert expansion of regulatory power: Because the FDA does not actually have to do anything other than issue a report with recommendations, they can suggest things that would normally be outside of their sphere of influence. For example, the Keystone Forum suggests that fast-food companies stop advertising calorie-dense foods and large portion-sizes. Since when has the FDA been authorized to do this? They can, however, recommend it all they like. Similarly, the Forum recommends not advertising fast-food to children. With that recommendation, the FDA has attempted to put fast-food in the same dark corner as cigarettes and alcohol. The one problem is that, unlike Marlboros and Budweisers, it is still legal to sell Happy Meals to children.

Whether they show up at your door in lab coats or ill-fitting suits, goons who demand that you do what they say or "somebody might get regulated" are still running a protection racket.

(The word "fat" here is being used by a fat person. Words like "overweight" and "obese" just obfuscate and soften. Trying to make being fat sound like it is not a bad thing is dangerous. I started exercising and watching what I eat, and I have lost a ton of weight since. You can too, but first admit that you are fat and that it is disgusting and unhealthy. That'll get you moving faster than any self-esteem builder.)

Eating for function can be fun!
There is no one size fits all, most diets assume this. There are some common demoninators in biology, and how we process food, as in blood brain barrier,digestive systems etc. Then we have to look at genetic preferences, similar food in take for generations, all this has to be taken into account.Don't forget activity rate, how often one exercises. Gov't regulations other than sanitation is rediculous, self-responsibility from accurate knowledge is the way to go. Rationing restaurants, warning on all food items, checking the type of cooking oil, more open kitchens so you can see what's going on. We can go crazy on this, lie detector tests for employees make sure they don't spit in the soup, or **** in the coffee. Self-responsibility, it's hard, but it's the only way, Who should control YOU, You of coarse.

obese/overweight does not mean fat
all of these artices play a bait and switch with the public. overweight and obese does not have anything to do with the amount of fat a person is carrying.

examples:

hershel walker in his prime could be defined as obese but had 4% body fat!

there are hundreds of examples. take your pick of the hundreds of athletes and see where they fall - usually overweight or obese.

don't even try to argue that they don't count because there are so few athletic types around. No, change the way that obesity is measured so that it is a true measure of fat content, then we can talk.

until these reports actually measure the amount of fat people are carrying, their data are meaningless.

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