The one unambiguous way we could save money healthcare would be to have everyone live healthier lifestyles. Obviously, that’s a lot easier said than done.
But as Megan McArdle recently noted, it’s not a coincidence that there seems to be more and more discussion about obesity as a major public health issue — as the government comes under increasing pressure to “bend the curve down,” they’ll resort to more and more aggressive public health measures to make us healthier.
While proposals like soda or fat taxes are highly controversial, the requirement to have restaurants post calorie counts next to all items is rather benign. It’s not a tax; it’s easily ignored; and it does provide consumers with more information.
It’s a classic example of what Obama adviser Cass Sunstein would call a “nudge.” It doesn’t force you into a choice, it just nudges you in the direction of the low-calories option.
But the problem is, a nudge is only worthwhile if it nudges you in the right direction. And there’s reason to think calorie counts will nudge you the wrong way. Calorie counts create the illusion of some unified measure of healthiness, as if low calories always equalled good and high calories always equal bad.
But it’s not nearly so simple. We’re not cars, and food isn’t measured on an octane count.
For example, for lunch I just ate a monster salad consisting of mixed greens, an egg, purple celery, lean steak slices, avocado, cucumber, etc. It was delicious, full of nutrients, good fats and protein. I don’t know the exact count, but it was obviously heavy on the calories. However, if you really think that you’re “light” granola bar with a few grapes, or “guilt-free, fat-free muffin” or handfull of taboulli or half-a-bagel is healthier than my sald, you’re nuts. They’re just not, even if they’re lower calories.
The same amount of calories coming from a muffin just aren’t equivalent to calories coming from broccoli or dark berries. Yet as we train people to think of the calorie as the measure of health, we’ll just keep distorting our diet decisions further and further. We know people are being mislead, because we’ve actually heard people say: “Gee, I had no idea there were so many calories in that,” When “that” is something perfectly healthy.
You might think, well, nobody’s stupid enough to think that candy and broccoli are equivalent, if calories are set equal, but then why the obsession with posting calorie counts? What good will that do?
The scary part is that we really don’t have a good answer to this question. We don’t have much will power in the face of such an abundance of sugar-rich foods. And nothing we’ve come up with so far has really solved that. Even a more complete nutritional reading would not work, since the people most likely to care about and research nutrition in depth, are probably the people that least need the help.
So while this particular proposal, the calorie count, sounds safe, it’s silly, misleading and potentially bad for our health.
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