by Marion Nestle
Apr 1 2014

Call for ideas: Do government policies promote obesity? How?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently devoted a column to an analysis of who really gets welfare in the United States.  He listed policies that favor not only the wealthy, but the fabulously wealthy:

  • Subsidies for private airplanes via tax write-offs and deductions
  • Tax deductions for private yachts
  • Tax deductions for hedge funds and private equity
  • Bank rescues
  • Incentives to operate locally

His column reminded me of one written in 2005 by Sean Faircloth, then a Maine State representative, “Six ways government promotes obesity and what to do about it.”

No government, Faircloth said, could have devised more effective policies for reducing physical activity and promoting junk food.  Taxpayers, he pointed out:

  • Subsidize oil companies and cars to the detriment of trails and sidewalks.
  • Make it impractical to get basic information in foods and restaurants (menu labeling regulations: where are you?).
  • Give large corporations free reign to market to children.
  • Allow soda and snack-food companies to market products in schools (USDA is trying to change this).
  • Direct billions in subsidies toward processed foods while neglecting fresh produce.
  • Promote high-calorie foods in programs for poor people.

I thought this was an interesting way of thinking about obesity policy and over the years have added these:

  • Allowing marketing costs to be deducted from taxes as business expenses
  • Bans on lawsuits against food companies
  • Ambiguous and obfuscating dietary guidelines (e.g. SoFAS in the 2010 edition)

No doubt there are others.

Can you think of any others?  Thanks.

  • Brian Klein

    This is a slightly different take on one or two of your previous ideas: Subsidizing farmers to grow grain crops that in turn force cheap prices of highly processed food. If I were to create dietary guidelines for a general population, I would say: Our diet should be based in high volume of vegetables, supplemented by eggs, meats and fish (or other high quality protein sources.), and some fruit. Then maybe add in a few grains here and there. But don’t base the diet on them.

    I haven’t read this book, but I’ve heard summaries, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it: Death By Food Pyramid by Denise Minger. If I remember the details correctly, when nutritional guidelines were being created, they were higher in vegetables and fruits, didn’t admonish butter and fats, and didn’t create a basis of grains as the staple of a diet. These guidelines were submitted to the USDA. At that time there happened to be a crisis with farm prices. There wasn’t enough of a demand for all the grains we were growing, so they needed to create a market for them… so the guidelines were changed to create that market. (Again, refer to the book for the whole story, as I may be missing or misrepresenting details, but that was the gist of it.)

    Interesting post.

  • Kapil Khatter MD

    Zoning rules that separate services from residential and decrease the walkability of neighbourhoods,

  • StellaBarbone

    Corollary: traffic lights that are set up with no consideration for pedestrian convenience even though there are choices which could decrease pedestrian inconvenience without affecting automobile traffic flows.

  • Dana Woldow

    Nutrition education is sorely lacking in our (taxpayer funded) public schools, and the new Common Core standards on which all students are supposed to be tested won’t change that. Too often, “health” curricula come from places like the Dairy Council, which (to the surprise of no one) emphasize “why consuming milk and milk products is essential to a healthy diet.”

  • Genie Maybanks

    >US “Nutrition Standards” that encourage my child’s school to serve French toast sticks, potatoes, and canned pears in corn syrup (all starchy white foods) in the same meal. Or cereal AND toast. Refined flour, bread, should not be a food group that needs to be met at every meal.

    >I could also go on and on about the obsession with killing all microbes on food. The almond industry MUST pasteurize all their nuts. So, I can’t sprout them. Raw milk is illegal. Irradiation of food is not good for beneficial bacteria. Addressing only the end product of production in things like chicken processing– allowing for dipping the meat in chemical baths instead of requiring safe-guards in the way it is raised, handled and processed.

    >Food additives are all GRAS, even though there is no proof that they are. Food coloring is linked to hyperactivity. The preservatives may be harming our gut lining. Innocent until proven guilty for the chemical companies.

    >Paranoid school officials that are cutting down apple trees in school gardens because the raw apples could be unsafe to eat and/or could be used as a weapon on school grounds. (Coralville, Iowa, this week)

    >WIC refuses to reimburse for organics, and it covers baby formula and Life Cereal, but not broccoli.

    >Really, the biggest problem is the imbalance of subsidies– not favoring vegetables and plant based diets.

  • Emmanuel Roux

    Make energy affordable to enable food long distance shipping for products market share gains and industry consolidation.

  • According to the USDA website that outlines the myriad usages for corn “…government programs have been instrumental in the development of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup).”

    HFCS has been linked to obesity and accompanying diseases of civilization (i.e. type 2 diabetes) that plague our society, contributing not only to ill health but to out of control health costs. Alarmingly, the corn crop is subsidized heavily by the federal government and, furthermore, almost 90% is genetically modified. Yes, I would say that in this case government policy – in the form of farm subsidies – promotes obesity.

  • Dina Rose

    We need to shift the nutrition message to habits. The pressure parents feel to “get” nutrients into kids encourages bad eating habits. It encourages parents to give their kids marginal foods that have “nutrients” even if they’re loaded with sugar, salt and fat. This dumbs-down the diet and pushes kids’ taste preferences in the wrong direction. It encourages parents to feed their kids a monotonous diet, not a varied one, once they’ve found the few foods with enough of the “right” nutrients even though variety is an important factor in healthy eating. Finally, pressure to get nutrients into kids encourages parents to teach their kids to overeat. Pushing more food into kids–to get “enough” veggies or “enough” nutrients into them–teaches external eating. That’s a high price to pay for a few “healthy” bites. A habits message would emphasis real foods over (even nutrient-enhanced) processed foods (i.e. proportion), variety and moderation.

    Dina- Author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli”

  • Genie Maybanks

    You are totally right– Especially about driving “taste preferences.”

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  • Teri Tiso

    .No requirement for physical education and health classes in public schools (K-12.)

    .No requirement for physical education and health classes in public colleges and universities.

    .Taxpayer supported bonds for professional sports venues that far outweighs support for community recreational centers, swimming pools, bicycle and walk paths, parks, preserves, beaches, woodlands, etc.

  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    For 100 years now, my family has milked 65 cows on 500 acres of beautiful rainfed grasslands to the north of NYC. As kids, we were alwata so proud when the milk truck driver would tell us he was hauling milk into NYC for fluid milk consumption. I believe milk is a wonderful beverage for most growing kids.

  • Joshua R. DeVoto

    “Six Ways Government Promotes Obesity & What To Do About It”
    – Sean Faircloth, Maine State Representative
    “John Kennedy gave a historic speech over forty years ago calling for the Civil Rights Act. What if, instead, he had called for America to become the most overweight, out-of-shape nation in history? No more effective plan could have been offered than what government actually did:”

  • SAO

    Oh, not more health classes! If anything, have nutrition as part of a cooking class. The basic principles of nutrition can be taught in an hour, but how long your spend on it is unrelated to whether kids know how to cook. A kid who’s never so much as boiled an egg is going to eat at McD’s regardless of how long his health teacher lectured him about fat.

  • Kelly

    Yeah, Michael Pollan has taught all of us food is too cheap. Just cheap and that must be causing a lot of indiscriminate eating. Food prices have about doubled in the past couple years but food is still too cheap. Until we get food prices up where common people can’t afford to eat so much we will be paying for those fatso diseases. I hate cheap stuff. It just makes for cheap crummy people.

  • Kelly

    You are absolutely right. Just like how food is too cheap so is energy too cheap. Even with gasoline at $3.50 per gallon we suffer from too abundant and too cheap energy. This cheapness in everything is what is killing us. Whenever food, shelter, energy and stuff like that is so cheap that low class people can afford it we just upset the proper nature of things. Just like grandparents spoiling grandkids. If we permit the poorer classes access to abundant affordable goods that just cheapens all our lives. Only through scarcity will ordinary folk be made to appreciate the finer things in life. I hate seeing cruddy common people parading around with cheap knockoffs of the wonderful rare things I have. These people rightly should be stooped over hand weeding the delightful organic vegetables I will be enjoying. I expect them to serve me. That is how it should be. Cheap stuff will be the death of us all.

  • SW

    Support policies that make it easier for parents to spend time with their children, as well as buy and prepare food

  • Julie Shimko

    Wow. You, Kelly, exemplify all that is wrong in this country.


    I am most fascinated with the idea that fitness clubs can become the corner pub or the youth center of the 21st Century, not just place to exercise but a community of people gathering together to unlock human potential and help each other achieve extraordinary mental, physical and emotional heights.

    When you look at new technologies such as exergaming, social fitness and fitness wearables it becomes clear that fitness is becoming an integrated part of people’s lives.


  • malachite2

    Why should people be exercising inside and going to a specific place just to exercise, when w/more sidewalks & perhaps fewer vehicles (less pollution, less noise, etc.) they could exercise “for free” while doing some daily tasks? Buying food, walking to/from work or to a train/bus station, walking to/from school, a friend’s house, etc. Bicycling to work/school/a friend’s house/a store . . People could walk together to go places, etc. Or run or bicycle. All exercise. Or garden outside if they have a yard, talk to neighbors, etc.

  • malachite2 –

    You make an excellent point. The best way to improve your health is to eat right and get exercise, and there are infinite ways to exercise.

    You need to take into account that we live in a digital society which enables new, and fascinating, ways to exercise.

    95% of people globally own a mobile phone, one third of the world’s population now uses the Internet, over 1B people are regular users of social media and the Y-generation does not remember a time when there was not a world wide web.

    Further, we live in a society where there is ever increasing pressure on parent’s free time and children’s primary communication is through social networks.

    Technology such as fitnessglo make exercise more convenient, Fitocracy, GymBit and Interactive Fitness help make exercise more fun and Xbox PlayFit brings the family together, in the comfort of their own home and makes the experience fun for the whole family.

    Apps, such as Myfitnesspal make it easy to diet and devices, such as Up, Shine, etc. make it possible to track exercise whether at home, in the garden, on a mountain or at home.

    You have suggested a number of ways individuals can improve health, and I completely agree, but people are loosing their sense of group identity. Fitness clubs are a place to bring people together in a positive way and group fitness technology is a tool to keep them together to share, motivate, challenge and support each other when they cannot be together.

    Imagine sharing your prized tomato with a group of friends from around the world, challenging your friends to spend more time in the garden to produce a better tomato, supporting / motivating your friends in their efforts in gardening improvement and being able to track the health benefits by simply wearing a bracelet – having a measure stick to share with the world the health benefits of spending more time in the garden via social media or just leaning over the fence to show your neighbor while he/she is having a beer 😉

    I am not suggesting that technology can replace basic human actions and interaction, but it is a great way to extend the fitness experience and encourage a society that is ignoring health and fitness to join in an effort to live a healthier and happier life.

    Jonathan C. Miller
    Miller Gold Partners

  • malachite2

    Everything you mention costs money. Mobile phones–are good only as long as you’ve got the income to pay that monthly fee (in the US anyway), unless you use a tracfone.

    Why is there more pressure on a parents’ free time? How much of it’s BECAUSE of gizmos? The amount of TV that many people watch is amazing, the length of some people’s commutes has increased, then there’s driving their kids to various activities.

    Belonging to a fitness club costs money too.

  • A mobile phone does cost money, but 95% of the wolds population has chosen to pay for mobile phones.

    Buying foods costs money, trains / busses cost money, school costs money, a bicycle costs money, a house with a garden costs money.

    There are many ways to exercise that do not cost money, and I am all in favor of them, if someone is going to spend money I think fitness is a good investment.

  • I am wondering… do you think it is not a good idea for people to invest in their health? Are you against people having more options for staying fit?

  • malachite2

    I am interested in making it EASY for people to do so–and one way to do that is to pay for it through the community,i.e., taxes paying for sidewalks, parks, bike lanes & separated lanes that can take people to work, to stores, to school, to restaurants, etc., so that they can easily incorporate exercise into their daily activities. And do it at the lowest cost/person. What you propose increases the “access cost” of “fitness” or exercise while encouraging the use of personal motor vehicles since many people in the US would be driving to your fitness centers.
    Not sure why you didn’t understand that from my previous comments.

  • malachite2

    A used bicycle probably costs less then an annual or monthly membership at a “fitness” center. It can be used to get around, go to places, not just for “exercise.” or “becoming fit.”

    A world Bank study said it was 75%, by the way. And I wonder how many of those are gov’t subsidized so if people ar egoing to subsidize the private sector why not also parks, sidewalks, bike paths, ec., so that people can exercise as part of their daily activities? I understand that you want to make money but that has nothing to do w/making it easier for people to get some exercise.

  • Lou Wei

    I really appreciated this post. However, government should see this netizens concerning about obesity issue and suggesting policies to avoid obesity so may be they will be having an action. By the way, I have few tips to avoid obesity: You should have sleep enough, exercise regularly and eat healthy foods.