by Marion Nestle
Aug 18 2012

Guest post: Paul Ryan’s Views on Food Politics

Daniel Green, a student at Cornell, asked whether I intended to write about Paul Ryan’s views on food politics.  He volunteered to put something together with his colleague, Dr. Margaret Yufera-Leitch.  Here are their thoughts:

Few Americans had heard of Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) until last week when he was announced as Presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney’s November running mate. A Janesville, Wisconsin native, former personal trainer and Oscar Mayer Weinermobile driver during his college days, Ryan is a strong advocate on the Hill for the P90x exercise routine and avoids eating fried foods and desserts (yes, even on the campaign trail).

But how do Mr. Ryan’s personal beliefs impact his voting on food politics related matters?

Obesity prevention

In the case of obesity, prevention has been shown repeatedly to be the best medicine. Of the $2.6 trillion spent on US health care in 2010, 95% went for disease treatment leaving only $421 per American per year for prevention—not even enough money for a 1-year gym membership in most states.

In an interview with Politico, Mr. Ryan admitted to maintaining 6-8% body fat with a healthy BMI of 21, admirable for any working professional. But Mr. Ryan, who has voted against every Affordable Care Act related bill, takes the stance that what you eat and what you weigh are both matters of personal responsibility. In 2005, he voted for H.R. 554 “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act” also known as the cheeseburger bill, which aimed to ‘prohibit weight gain-related or obesity-related lawsuits from being brought in federal or state courts against the food industry.’ The bill was passed by the House but failed to even go up for vote in the Senate. The legislation was featured in the 2004 Morgan Spurlock documentary Super Size Me, where Marion Nestle also made her on-screen debut.

According to a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, by 2020 Obesity will cost America $4.6 trillion dollars annually and healthcare costs related to obesity will consume 19.8% of U.S. GDP. The sudden rise of obesity is a clear sign that, as a country, we have fostered an obesogenic environment that will require commitments from both the public and private sectors to reform.

Given that 70% of Americans are overweight and obese, we have collectively demonstrated that public service announcements alone have not yet resulted in the significant population-wide behavior changes needed to reverse obesity and more importantly alleviate a strained U.S. Health Care system.

SNAP Benefits

One of the most important programs available to lower income Americans is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as Food Stamps, which provides access to fresh foods for low-income families. Given that increased fruit and vegetable consumption are cornerstone habits of the Preventative Medicine conversation, why has Mr. Ryan argued to cut SNAP by $33 billion over the next ten years?

Affordable Care Act

Paul Ryan’s choices to repeal $6.2 trillion dollars of support from the Affordable Care Act and obesity-related provisions, demonstrates a lesser degree of support for preventative care than his widely publicized exercise regime suggests.  Perhaps with unemployment still high and unsure economy, America has bigger fish to fry than fixing the food system and reversing obesity but at least for now, Paul Ryan will take his fish broiled.

 Paul Ryan Food Politics Fact Sheet

Favorite Exercise Program: P90x
BMI: 21 (Healthy)
Dietary Restrictions: Doesn’t eat desserts or fried foods
View on cause of Obesity Personal Responsibility
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) For
Farm Bill Against
Food Safety Modernization Act Against
Healthcare Reform (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) Strongly against
Menu Labeling No direct comment- but against Obamacare which includes it
Repealing the Prevention and Public Health Fund For
School Lunch Reform and Child Nutrition Reauthorization For
Soda Taxes No direct comment


References and source materials are available from the authors:

  • Daniel Green studies Applied Nutrition and Psychology at Cornell University. You can follow him on Twitter at
  • Margaret Yufera-Leitch received her PhD in experimental psychology with a focus in eating behavior from the University of Sussex. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Calgary.  Her website is
  • Special thanks to Jessica Ho from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress for serving as an early reviewer!

  • The overview is superficial and incomplete. There is no nuance here, and I dont get any feel on where the candidate states, other than to say, “he favors personal responsibility.” Bills are complicated, and he has local constituents to represent. We need to know what the rationale behind his positions.


  • Dennis Murray

    What about GMO labeling?

  • Cristina

    Food policy is of great interest to me, but is often overshadowed by other topics when it comes to voting season. Thank you for this post.

  • j

    Ryan, typical of the far right, has no interest in what’s in the best interest of the people. All one has to do is look at his draconian proposals.

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  • HighlySkeptical


    “I dont get any feel on where the candidate states, other than to say, “he favors personal responsibility.”

    As a life-long follower of Ayn Rand (despite recent denials, he still insists everyone who works for him read her books and be an Objectivist), is there any doubt where he stands?

    He is against any form of government action or any government program. He does not believe in the concept of “public health,” because that would be a “collectivist” idea – there are only individuals. The only “food policy” he supports is an extreme version of the free market, in which there are no regulations of any kind and no restraints on large corporations such as Monsanto.

  • @HighlySkeptical
    We may agree on Ryan. However, any critique requires dispassion with evidence. I think thats the nature of this site. By your assessment, I know where you stand. Others need to form their own opinion though, and deserve a full overview.

  • Politicians and bureaucrats need to stay completely away from things about which they know less than nothing. That includes, but is not limited to 1) medical care, 2) diet, and 3) exercise.

  • natalie

    Hi – as a non-US citizen I’m not clear on how your laws pass.

    “H.R. 554 “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act” also known as the cheeseburger bill, which aimed to ‘prohibit weight gain-related or obesity-related lawsuits from being brought in federal or state courts against the food industry.’ The bill was passed by the House but failed to even go up for vote in the Senate.”

    Does that mean that the act was never actually passed into law?

  • Snappy.

    Paul Ryan may be an unsavory character, but it is problematic to say that SNAP “provides access to fresh foods for low-income families” without acknowledging that access does not equate to consumption.

    Yes, increased fruit and vegetable consumption are certainly important to prevent health problems, but reducing consumption of junk is also mission critical.

    Anyway, how much of the $70+ billion in annual SNAP benefits is spent on fruit and vegetables, fresh, frozen, or canned? Nobody knows.

    No candidate of any major political party has offered a comprehensive hunger relief program that would facilitate more of the good stuff and LESS of the junk.

  • Muriel

    @Snappy, I don’t think the authors are saying that SNAP access means consumption of fruit and vegetables. They are saying that ability to access fruits and vegetables is the first step towards being able to actually consume them. By cutting away SNAP, poorer folks would have even less access to fruits and vegetables, which also means less consumption of it. More access doesn’t mean more consumption of fruits and vegetables. But, less access DOES mean less consumption of fruits and vegetables.

  • Ryan vote

    As far as the vote on
    H.R. 554 “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act”
    80 Democratic representatives also voted Yea. And, in 2005, the Senate was controlled by GOP. Interesting they didn’t introduce bill there. What would be interesting beyond the record of a single vote is whether Rep. Ryan made a floor speech on the bill.

  • Katherine

    I am disappointed with this post. I find it to be highly opinionated and politically charged. From the title of the post, I expected an overview of Paul Ryan’s views on issues of food policy, not a one-sided opinion on Paul Ryan’s views. I also am curious why the authors have decided not to link directly to their source material or list it in footnotes, instead requiring that a reader directly contact them. Generally, I have found that Dr. Nestle links directly to studies or articles she is referencing. In addition, the authors do not elaborate on Ryan’s stance on several pieces of legislation that they bothered to list. To me, this post feels like an excuse for a couple of academics to show off their understanding of food politics while criticizing Ryan.

  • JC

    Mr. Ryan has advocated for cutting SNAP by $134 Billion, not $33B, and for block-granting the program, essentially removing its ability to respond to changes in the economy.

    I’m surprised that such massive changes to the government’s single largest food program merit only a short paragraph in this analysis.

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  • B.

    The BMI was developed to measure large groups of people and is not relevant to individuals. It is misleading when applied to an individual.

  • Paul Ryan is a typical politician…allow the USDA & FDA to approve the lousy food available to most consumers. Especially, because everyone cannot afford organic. Not to mention allowing GMO! Even the kids school lunches are terrible. Nothing healthy about them.

    Did you know that in Denmark they are encouraged to buy organic and receive a 25% discount?

    Pretty smart!

  • Marion – Thanks for this guest blog.
    The two writers do a wonderful job of dispassionate reportage.
    The findings are both scary and without surprise.
    Hope all will vote with care and thought this November.

  • Ally

    @ Katherine,

    You wrote:
    “I am disappointed with this post. I find it to be highly opinionated and politically charged.”

    Do you realize that this blog is titled Food Politics?

  • Very informative post. Thanks for sharing

  • We all know that obesity is a big problem in America. SNAP is a good way to give people with lower income access to fruit and vegetables.
    Another good alternative would be to give free access to fitness centers or give away high discount to lower income families.

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  • Molly Carter

    I think this post has new and even greater relevance now that Paul Ryan and been awarded the position of speaker of the house. Paul Ryan claims to support health and wellness behaviors, but his policy decisions aren’t realistic with the current environment and food system in the United states. The obesity and chronic disease in the United States has not been bettered by assigning all of the causation and blame to individuals. There are so many factors that Paul Ryan is aware of that do not create a healthy environment where obesity can be reduced. A huge contributor to poor health and obesity is poverty. Recently, since earning his new role, Paul Ryan has focused on poverty legislation. He aims to create more flexibility in states’ poverty programs, mainly that they should create incentive for those impoverished to make personal changes to lift themselves out of poverty. Poverty is a vicious cycle, and withholding benefits from the needy is not a way to break that cycle. The support Ryan shows for certain nutrition related policies is inconsistent. He supports the national school lunch and breakfast program from the HHFKA, yet wants to cut SNAP spending by either reducing the budget or eliminating the Farm Bill. This gives voters the impression that he supports personal responsibility theory of obesity only for adults and children in their homes, but not at schools. These inconsistencies prove that the leadership of and the agenda set by Paul Ryan will need careful watching by health providers and health advocates such as physician, registered dietitians, and nutrition and disease scholars. As a scholar of nutrition, I personally, will be sure to be more active in the policy process during his time as speaker, to ensure the congress people who represent my district are aware of which policies change the environment to promote poverty and obesity. It should also be noted that Paul Ryan is against the food safety modernization act, and supports riders on the 2016 appropriations bill that will limit the reach and scope of the dietary guidelines for americans (including having no sustainability language and reduced emphasis on physical activity). As a person that advocates healthy eating and physical activity, it deeply troubles me that a man with such power and with personal knowledge that incorporation of these healthy behaviors leads to better health outcomes actively combats the dissemination of these scientifically proven claims.