Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Should kids stop eating crisps?

Panic: `The pack-a-day habit threatening our kids' health,' intones the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to promote its Food4Thought campaign. According to the BHF, eating one pack of crisps per day will lead children to consume almost five litres of cooking oil in the course of a year. Their press release notes that half of British schoolchildren `admit' to eating a pack of crisps everyday while almost one-in-five eat two packs or more.

Other nutritional shockers include the finding that three quarters of mothers feed their children ready meals or takeaways more than three times a week and only 13 per cent of boys and 12 per cent of girls reported eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

Don't panic: This campaign is as heavily laden with spin as the crisps are with oil. The reference to consuming a `pack-a-day' has a strong whiff of cigarettes about it. Since in the popular imagination, `cigarettes=death', the implication is that eating so many crisps will have a similar impact. Yet, while the picture of a little girl pouring a gallon container of oil down her throat looks repulsive, the comparison is no less grotesque.

Oil is a perfectly normal and healthy part of the diet. Eating nothing but crisps would be quite likely to produce a greasy and rather anaemic looking child, but as long as there is some variety in children's diets (and not just between cheese and onion and smokey bacon), there shouldn't be a problem.

Another way of putting that `almost five litres of oil' figure would be that children consume about two-and-a-half teaspoons of oil per pack. In energy terms, the oil contributes about 100 calories. Not exactly devastating. But the ruse of adding up a year's consumption is ludicrous. For example, if a child drinks a litre of water per day, that means they consume 365 litres per year - enough to fill four baths. If they attempted to drink all of it at once they'd certainly drown. Yet no-one is suggesting that drinking water is bad for you.

There is no such thing as `bad' foods, only bad diets. Even then, the link between eating fat and ill-health has never been backed up by the evidence. When major studies have been conducted into the effect of changing diet to a low-fat or low saturated fat intake, the results have been extremely disappointing for those seeking to establish such a link. Rather than targeting health campaigns at children which cause unnecessary worry, finding the root causes of heart disease and better ways to treat it more effectively would be the right path to take. Unlike our children's diets, it's always proven to be more fruitful.


Limiting Fast Food

By Belle Waring. Post lifted from Crooked Timber

New York City Councilman Joel Rivera (representing the Bronx) wants to change the zoning laws to restrict the number of fast food restaurants. The Times notes that Calistoga, CA has a similar law on the books banning chain restaurants from its historic downtown, for aesthetic reasons. Mr. Rivera’s reasoning may be aesthetic as well, though he would surely defend it as hygenic: he thinks New Yorkers are too fat. He’s probably right about that, but his proposed solution seems of dubious utility, in addition to being a gratuitous restriction of his constituents’ right to do what they please. And now let’s hear one of the least compelling defenses of the nanny state ever offered by a well-intentioned politician:

“We have 8 million people, and 8 million people should have options,” said Mr. Rivera, 27, who at age 22 became the youngest elected official in city history. “Right now, there’s a lack of options in a lot of communities.”

So, by restricting their options, we’ll deal with that pesky lack of options that—what now? All right, it’s easy to laugh at this, but…but…hmm, my powers of higher Broderism are fading in and out. (I hope John didn’t bring that damn red kryptonite paperweight home again, because it puts a real cramp in my otherwise nigh-invincible Silver Age blogging powers.) No, here we are, an actual question: are restaurants that offer healthy alternatives undercut pricewise by fast food restaurants, in reality? (I am setting aside the question of whether it’s a good idea to force poor people to pay more for food; the answer is “no”, by the way.) I could imagine that they are, as the economies of scale available to McDonald’s enable them to offer food very cheaply. Additionally, fresh vegetables are perishable in a way that the fixings of a Big Mac are not.

The most obvious response to this type of dietary do-goodery is to say that people just don’t want to buy these purported healthy alternatives, because if they did, there’d be somebody selling them to them already. The fact that mom-and-pop restaurants in many poor neighborhoods run overwhelmingly to the “Chinese food, wings and pizza” type confirms this notion. The only reason I have any sympathy at all for the impulse behind this (obviously stupid and illiberal) idea is that people in poor neighborhoods are subjected to paying more money for worse produce than people in richer ones. Crappy supermarkets with sad carrots and iceberg lettuce, or expensive bodegas with limited selection: these are not good choices, and do seem like a market failure. To this end, the attempt to move farmer’s markets into poorer neighborhoods seems good, as does the idea that opposition to big grocery stores in urban neighborhoods should be dropped.

It isn’t healthy to eat fast food all the time, but it’s not the government’s job to tell people what to eat. Them’s the breaks. Also, America, those jeans make you look fat.

Radley Balko comments:

Waring touches on what I've been saying for some time. If, as the public health activists suggest, the problem is that low-income people don't have access to cheap, fresh produce, the answer is to allow into urban areas businesses that have figured out how to deliver fresh produce to low income people. And no one has that business model down better than Wal-Mart. What's fun is watching the generally socialist public health crowd squirm when you point this out to them. I don't have philosophical objections to community farmer's markets. But it's delusional to think they're capable of putting good food in the homes of poor people on any significant scale. If access to fresh, unprocessed food is your concern, I hate to tell ya', but you're going to have to embrace a little capitalism.

I think it's also important to point out the condescending, classist position one has to adopt in order support these types of policies. The argument, basically, is that poor people don't know what's best for them. They are incapable of making their own decisions about what they eat, and what they feed their kids. They're mentally weak, and overly succeptible to advertising. Therefore, all-knowing public health activists ought to be able to right laws that make these types of decisions for poor people. Or, put another way, "poor people don't eat artichokes."


Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? [/sarcasm].


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