February 21 2013

Cass Sunstein: Obesity Expert

Julie Gunlock

Former Obama Regulatory Czar Cass Sunstein believes he's found the lost empire of Atlantisfountain of youthpot of gold at the end of the rainbow single cause of obesity—portion control.

Writing in Bloomberg, Sunstein starts with some predictable alarmist rhetoric about how we’ve all literally become too big for our britches.  Too bad he missed the more recent health data which shows obesity rates among adults are leveling off and among children, the rates are declining, even among kids most at risk for obesity.  Sunstein also failed to review the latest medical findings that say the unsightly muffin top that officially places you in the “overweight” category may, in fact, reduce your risk of early death. That’s right, being overweight might not be fun (or fashionable) but it might just get you a few extra years to play with your grandkids. 

Though grating, Sunstein’s desire to pinpoint that single cause of obesity is understandable. After all, it certainly would be nice if we could simply do away with that one injurious source, and rid ourselves of its dangerous fat-causing powers. 

But obesity is far, far more complex than Sunstein allows. His simplistic diagnosis makes sense only if one has a rather dismal view of humans. If the general public is akin to a bunch of zombies and, as Sunstein puts it, prone to “eat whatever is put in front of them, even if they aren’t hungry,” then simply controlling people’s access to food would work.

But it really isn’t that simple. Losing weight is tough and it can’t be accomplished by simply limiting consumers’ choices.  In fact, a study published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that limiting people's high-calorie food options does nothing to reduce their overall calorie intake or help them lose weight.

Therefore, the far better approach would be to expand consumer choices instead of limiting them.  Luckily for millions of dieters, that’s precisely what’s happening and it isn’t due to any sort of government regulations. It’s due entirely to the food industry responding to consumer demand for lower-calorie, healthier food. The food industry seems to understand that this is good for their bottom line.

A new study from The Hudson Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shows that between 2006 and 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages were the key growth engine for restaurants and that there was a 5.5 percent increase in sales compared to a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings. The study also found that French fries are declining in both number of servings and share of total food servings among fast food chains and that people are choosing low-calorie beverages over traditional beverages.

But it isn’t just restaurants that are pledging to make their food healthier. Food companies have pledged to voluntarily reduce the calories in their products by the end of 2015. Sunstein will be happy to hear that they’ve also pledged to reduce the portion size of their single serving products (as a consumer, I’m not sure why I should be happy that serving size is going down but as long as Sunstein’s happy, I’m good).  But you don’t need fancy research studies to understand this food trend. One need only stroll down the snack food aisle to see the various options provided to consumers: low salt, no salt, low fat, no fat, reduced calorie, multigrain, organic, high fiber, dairy free, gluten free, vegan, etc.  Ultimately, more choices make it easier for people to make healthier decisions. 

Sunstein concludes that “With careful attention to the subtle social cues that lead to excessive eating, we should be able to make a real dent in a serious public health problem.”

That’s nice. But Sunstein hasn’t really given this careful attention. Sunstein is simply sticking to what he knows: pushing for regulations on industry--regulations that will do nothing to improve the life or health of Americans but will do a lot to nudge those unemployment rates even higher.

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