The Dim-Post

July 13, 2010

Happy Meals

Filed under: economics,science — danylmc @ 6:39 am

MacDoctor responds to the recent OECD report criticizing the government’s lack of action combating obesity:

Apparently there is a war on obesity. Trouble is, there does not seemed to be a well-defined enemy in this war. Is it the fast food industry? Perhaps it is the actual fat in foods? Maybe it is the obese person themselves? Or their wicked, neglectful parents? Or perhaps it is carbohydrates, not fats, that make you fat?

All this uncertainty make one thing completely certain. No government in the world is going to make any inroads on tackling the problem, regardless of how much of our money they want to throw at it. Politicians are a simple breed and need a simple target and plan. Unfortunately, the temptation to give politicians a simplistic answer is simply too great for some weight zealots.

I have a simple target! Taxes on high calorie soda drinks! Plenty of research done on this – they’re a huge factor in the rise in obesity. In the US they account for ~7% of all calories consumed and they have no nutritional value AND consumption is price sensitive. A recent USDA study found:

a tax induced 20-percent price increase on caloric sweetened beverages could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day, or 3.8 pounds [1.7 kg] of body weight over a year, for adults and an average of 43 calories per day, or 4.5 pounds [2.0 kg] over a year, for children.

Moving on from the soda tax there are various state and county anti-obesity experiments in effect all across the US. In Santa Clara CA:

Happy Meal toys and other promotions that come with high-calorie children’s meals will soon be banned in parts of Santa Clara County unless the restaurants meet nutritional guidelines approved Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors.

“This ordinance prevents restaurants from preying on children’s’ love of toys” to sell high-calorie, unhealthful food, said Supervisor Ken Yeager, who sponsored the measure. “This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes.”

While in New York they’ve forced restaurants to publish calorie counts of their products and combined this with an education campaign about what your daily caloric intake should be. The theory is that once you know you’re only supposed to eat 2000 calories a day and that a Big Mac and fries constitutes 1400 calories you’ll have second thoughts.

I don’t know if either of these experiments will work but my point is there’s plenty of research out there on the subject and there’s a lot more coming. So the problem isn’t as vague and hopeless as MacDoctor thinks.

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35 Comments »

  1. How dare expose this “Macdoctor” chap’s limited faculties of reason? He’s a doctor you know! You must trust him when he says that any solution to this so-called “obesity epidemic” which involves a policy response other than leaving it to magic is PC zealots gone mad allowing a nanny to run wild with your children!

    Pay the nurse on your way out.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — July 13, 2010 @ 7:08 am

  2. Price signals DO work – just look at the number of kids who carry 1.5l bottles of Coke to school in the morning. Coke is much cheaper than water, now (unless you drink out of the tap).

    But rather than slapping more taxes on food, we have missed an opportunity to REMOVE taxes from fresh fruit and veges with the impending GST increase. Yes, I know there will be howls about how hard it is to define “fresh” and how much expensive work it will make for lawyers, but surely it’s worth the effort.

    The Aussies managed it, somehow.

    Comment by Neil — July 13, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  3. Agree re the sugary soft drinks (and “energy” drinks for that matter, seeing as the energy in them comes from sugar rather than caffeine).

    Can’t agree re this, though:

    Moving on from the soda tax there are various state and county anti-obesity experiments in effect all across the US.

    I prefer it when the govt doesn’t carry out experiments on us – previously, you’ve expressed the same preference. As Macdoctor points out, there isn’t agreement on what features of people’s diets are causing the increase in obesity. Let the “experts” settle that before demanding that govts fling taxes and restrictions around.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — July 13, 2010 @ 7:47 am

  4. But rather than slapping more taxes on food, we have missed an opportunity to REMOVE taxes from fresh fruit and veges with the impending GST increase.

    For me, I think this would fail because supermarkets would just use the removal of GST on some products to subsidise other products with a higher margin. ie, if they can get 2$ for a head of broccolli, that is what they shall charge. If you drop the gst from that, then why wouldn’t they jus discount some other product that is more price sensitive, like booze or chocolate biscuits.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — July 13, 2010 @ 7:57 am

  5. Let the “experts” settle that . . .
    The same experts who are funded by the food industry?

    Comment by Owen — July 13, 2010 @ 8:18 am

  6. The problem is fatties eating too much.

    Comment by har — July 13, 2010 @ 8:20 am

  7. So maybe the solution is for fatties to eat less and to try ‘moving around’ on their legs.

    Comment by har — July 13, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  8. If taxes are introduced on “harmful” foods it needs to be ensured that fatties are not going to adjust their spending patterns to accomodate these higher prices.

    I say, crush the cars of fatties after a period of 30 days with no weight loss, and then start issuing eating licenses. Its so simple, you need a license to drive, why is one not required to eat??!?

    Comment by Bed Rater — July 13, 2010 @ 8:29 am

  9. I prefer it when the govt doesn’t carry out experiments on us – previously, you’ve expressed the same preference.

    I don’t like it when they conduct massive radical experiments with our entire economy but I’d love it if they tested their policies with small scale ‘clinical’ trials instead of just rushing them all through Parliament under urgency.

    Comment by danylmc — July 13, 2010 @ 8:39 am

  10. That would be nice, yes. I just don’t think stuff like some ass-clown politician getting his pet hate of Happy Meal toys banned really comes into that category.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — July 13, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  11. My greatest ever experience on a bicycle was when I drank 1.5L of coke in 30 minutes. It tasted terrible, though, as I had added table salt to it.

    Comment by mjl — July 13, 2010 @ 9:15 am

  12. My understanding about the soft drink issue is that US soft drinks contain high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener rather than sugar. High-fructose corn syrup has way more calories I think, and prevents you from realizing you are full. So stopping people from drinking it would have much less of an impact here than in the US.

    I have to say I share Macdoctor’s pessimism. We can’t get people to stop smoking even though that’s a far, far simpler issue, so I’m not convinced we will ever be able to use public policy to bring about the complex set of behaviour changes which will reduce obesity. This is particularly so since, contrary to what some posters have suggested, it’s more complicated than ‘people are fat because they’re lazy and greedy’. I’ve spent the last year doing no exercise and eating some pretty fatty stuff, without gaining any significant weight, but I know several people who are fat despite playing sport regularly and eating healthily.

    Comment by Helenalex — July 13, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  13. “I don’t like it when they conduct massive radical experiments with our entire economy but I’d love it if they tested their policies with small scale ‘clinical’ trials instead of just rushing them all through Parliament under urgency.”

    Like this one?

    http://www.mediapeople.co.nz/releases/article.php?id=32271

    JC

    Comment by JC — July 13, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  14. “but I know several people who are fat despite playing sport regularly and eating healthily.”

    Bollocks.

    Its a simple equation calories in minus calories used = surplus (then is stored as fat) deficit (fat is broken down to fund the deficit)

    Your fat friends are chowing down on packets of toffee pops and mince and cheese pies when you are not looking.

    Comment by La Grand Fromage — July 13, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  15. “Its a simple equation calories in minus calories used = surplus (then is stored as fat) deficit (fat is broken down to fund the deficit)”

    Do people still believe this? How come there are people who can eat *anything* (and we all hate them) and stay skinny?
    Sometimes it is because they are more active and therefore their metabolic rate is higher.
    Sometimes it is because (genetically) their metabolic rate is higher which often makes them more active.
    What happens if you are genetically cursed with a low metabolic rate?
    And it is surely even more complicated than that too.

    I completely agree that junk food is bad for everyone, and eating too much bad stuff will eventually make anyone fat.
    But the equation is not a simple one.

    Comment by Roger Parkinson — July 13, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  16. Its a simple equation calories in minus calories used = surplus (then is stored as fat) deficit (fat is broken down to fund the deficit)

    This is an attractive concept because of its simplicity, but like a lot of superficially attractive ideas it isn’t actually true. Richard Feinman (nb – not Feynman the physicist) put it thus: “Energy utilization of different diets depends on the chemical pathway taken and a metabolic analysis of the efficiency of different pathways reveals large differences.”

    Comment by Psycho Milt — July 13, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  17. It’s my glands, they don’t process TimTams well.

    Comment by davy crockett — July 13, 2010 @ 11:35 am

  18. “Coke is much cheaper than water, now (unless you drink out of the tap).”

    Weirdly. The way so many people apparently don’t drink out of the tap any more, or spend $40 on a filtering jug, but will pay through the nose for someone to put a small amount of their own water in steralised plastic bottles and truck it all over the country must be a huge win for someone.

    Comment by Mike — July 13, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

  19. “Your fat friends are chowing down on packets of toffee pops and mince and cheese pies when you are not looking.”

    Presumably I am also exercising in my sleep, or something.

    Comment by Helenalex — July 13, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  20. IMHO 500 calories of Tim Tams is likely to be worse for weight gain than 500 calories of balanced meal.

    Comment by davy crockett — July 13, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  21. “Coke is much cheaper than water, now (unless you drink out of the tap).”

    In other words drinking water is much much cheaper than coke – free in fact – and the price signal still doesn’t work. What is the justification for buying water? Posturing for the benefit of others? Some sort of self-image problem? A cyclist perhaps?

    Comment by annie — July 13, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  22. My greatest ever experience on a bicycle was when I drank 1.5L of coke in 30 minutes. It tasted terrible, though, as I had added table salt to it.

    When I was a kid, I’d put water into a Milo box, and wait a few days for a sugar-cocoa thrill. Eating a whole box in a short session meant being off my kite.

    Comment by georgedarroch — July 13, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

  23. I think before they experiment, they should first have a go at working out a proper measurement for obese – so that the All-Blacks and every Pacific Islander don’t fall into the category. I can’t think of anything good about soft drinks, but taxing high-calorie foods is a bit unfair on those who are underweight – a good chunk of the elderly for example. Its very hard as it is for underweight elderly to get enough calories down to keep weight on. It would be poor form if they were financially forced to buy low-cal food.

    Comment by Bea — July 13, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  24. Unfortunately, the temptation to give politicians a simplistic answer is simply too great for some weight zealots.

    Thank you for so ably demonstrating my point. Danyl. The “study” you cite (actually a government report), uses excessively simplistic statistics to “prove” it’s point. They calculate the calories saved by the anticipated reduction in soda (a guess, of course) and then assume all of the calories “saved” would have been turned into fat. One must therefore assume that this report was written by brain-dead zombies who burn no energy (pretty standard for a government report, then). In addition, they appear to have completely overlooked the fact that the vast majority of overweight people (the one’s most likely to pick up weight) in fact drink diet sodas. So much for reducing US obesity.

    The second suggestion is even worse. Ban Happy Meals? What sort of self-righteous sadist thought that one up? MacDonalds attracts families because of three things – it is cheap, kids will eat it and nearly every MacDonalds has a playground. The toy in the happy meal is merely a gimmick to keep the kids quiet while they eat their food (before they go and play and burn off that fat they’ve just eaten). All the curmudgeons in Santa Clara will achieve is disappointed, fractious children. I predict not one less Happy Meal will be sold.

    My point remains valid. Governments suck at behavioral change.

    And, Mr. Smiley, I don’t know what doctor you see, but normally you pay the receptionist on the way out… ;-)

    Comment by MacDoctor — July 13, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  25. “Do people still believe this? How come there are people who can eat *anything* (and we all hate them) and stay skinny?”

    I used to be one of those people, and it wasn’t because I was particularly active. Now (possibly due to medications I wasn’t on then) I do put on weight if I eat high calorie food. It’s true that some people put on weight more easily than others, and people like what I used to be don’t deserve to be hated for it.

    Comment by kahikatea — July 13, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

  26. “In addition, they appear to have completely overlooked the fact that the vast majority of overweight people (the one’s most likely to pick up weight) in fact drink diet sodas. So much for reducing US obesity.”

    While I don’t know whether this is the case, studies have certainly shown that obesity is correlated with diet soda consumption. This is interesting but so what?

    “Governments suck at behavioral (sic) change.”

    When they’re populated by Actoids they are. However, seat-belts, drink-driving, smoking, recycling, lead-free petrol, motorcycle helmets, cfc aerosols, literacy rates, low-energy light-bulbs (in civilised countries anyway)….

    I bow to your greater knowledge on GP payment processes. As a male of a certain age I’m never seen at the doctor’s…

    Comment by guy smiley — July 14, 2010 @ 2:26 am

  27. Guy:

    Seat belts: A clear, well-defined, unequivocal benefit and 30 years of legislation and government-funded promotion.

    Yet the rate of use amongst teenagers is still shocking. Last year two kids were killed right outside my house when they collided with a tree and flew straight through their windscreen.

    I’m a doctor. I try for behavioural change all the time. Yet even on a one-to-one basis, I rarely persuade anyone to lose weight.

    And you would like the government to bully them into it. Fat chance.

    Comment by MacDoctor — July 14, 2010 @ 7:06 am

  28. And you would like the government to bully them into it.

    Even worse, Toomath et al would like the govt to attempt to bully them into it by following policies based on obesity activists’ personal opinions rather than anything we actually know will work.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — July 14, 2010 @ 7:33 am

  29. Macdoctor, you said governments suck at behavioural change. There are many examples where behavioural change has been achieved by governments.

    If you were trying to convince people one on one to wear seatbelts 40 years ago you would have failed at that as well, yet over time the government did the job for you. Don’t feel bad.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — July 14, 2010 @ 7:46 am

  30. drinking water is much much cheaper than coke – free in fact – and the price signal still doesn’t work.

    In Wellington, tap water tastes like crap. As does the rest of the fluoridated/chlorinated/whatever-ated around the country. This is a cost of consumption.

    If my choice is Coke at $1 a litre, Bottled Water at $3 a litre, and crap at $0 a litre… I still ain’t reaching for the faucet.

    Comment by Phil — July 14, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

  31. I’d get your taps checked, Phil, my kids, wife and I are happy enough with the water*. Mind you: we are of Scottish descent…

    * Or your taste buds are influenced by an apparent dislikee of the additives mentioned.

    Great link JC. Reminds one of The Paradox of The French.

    Most older folk I know only wear seatbelts because they don’t want to pay a fine. Me, I feel naked and vulnerable without one, but I’m neither old, nor one of those indestructible teenagers. The science of seatbelts is rather compelling. The science of why we get fat, isn’t, as (among others) MacDoc and Psycho point out.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — July 14, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

  32. CF – I originally come from Chch. There are plenty of reasons to dislike the ‘most English of Cities outside of England’ but the untainted water supply isn’t one of them. It’s fantastic in comparison to Welly.

    Reference to ‘crap’ was metaphorical. My water doesn’t actually have faeces in it.

    Comment by Phil — July 14, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  33. “The science of why we get fat, isn’t…”

    A lot of it is.

    That’s sort of like saying you won’t wear a seatbelt because it might jam just at the time you flip into a ditch filled with water and so the government shouldn’t encourage you to.

    Libertarians don’t like science when it doesn’t tell them what they want to know.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — July 14, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

  34. “Libertarians don’t like science when it doesn’t tell them what they want to know.”
    Well, I consider myself libertarian, and I am quite happy to wear a seatbelt. Sure, I don’t do it because it is mandated and I’ll be fined if I don’t. I do it because I am convinced that windscreens and steering columns meeting my face and abdomen at speed is not healthy. Also, in looking at the cost v benefits of wearing a seatbelt, I cannot think of any plausible benefits of not wearing a belt.

    NOBODY likes science when it doesn’t tell them what they want to know. I think Danyl has previously expressed scepticism of the social sciences, yet much liberal thinking seems to be informed by the social sciences. Libertarians, Conservative, Liberals, all guilty of selective mutism.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — July 14, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

  35. re 25: “How come there are people who can eat *anything* (and we all hate them) and stay skinny?”

    I didn’t mean hate them literally, of course. It was just a short hand way of describing the envy they induce in us.

    Comment by Roger Parkinson — July 15, 2010 @ 12:34 pm


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