Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people.  Likewise, food doesn’t make one fat.  People make themselves fat– by consuming more calories than are expended.  How hard is this to understand?  Apparently very, if Mark Bittman, writing in the Sunday Review (July 24, 2011) of the New York Times, is any indication. 

Ever since that horrible movie Supersize Me came out a few years back, excoriating McDonald’s for the foods on its menu, implying that McDonald’s makes people fat, I’ve toyed with the idea of doing the same experiment of eating solely at McDonald’s for thirty days to prove that McDonald’s menu doesn’t make one fact, but that the choices of what and how much to eat of the available items on the menu are what make one fat (or thin, as the case may be).  It’s all about calories in and calories out.  It would be riotously easy to reenact the movie’s premise while training for a marathon and actually lose weight. 

It is not necessary, for instance, to eat the Big Breakfast (eggs, pancakes, sausage) every day, or any day.  I’ve never had one myself because it’s too much food for me.  For an average-sized guy like me (5’9″, 165 lbs.) one hash brown, some coffee and juice is sufficient, and all these items are staples of the breakfast menu.

Neither is it necessary to have a supersized double quarter-pounder with cheese meal for lunch every day, or any day.  A hamburger happy meal (give the toy to a child waiting in line, or better, to the child’s parent as a less-creepy gesture) would suffice most days, with the occasional single quarter-pounder (no cheese, no supersize) meal thrown in to splurge.  A regular size soft drink, not diet, would be fine so long as the rest of the meal was reasonably proportioned.

For dinner, a reprise of lunch, perhaps, or a fish or chicken sandwich with a salad, would do. 

Lunch and dinner would get monotonous after a while, because it is basically eating the same fare of a sandwich, fries and drink twice everyday, but doing so would only be detrimental to the health if the same, oversized meal were chosen for consumption at most lunch and dinner meals.  No reasonable person would do such a thing, though the Supersize Me movie depended for its conclusion that people would behave so irrationally. 

McDonald’s doesn’t make people fat.  People make themselves fat.

But here comes Mark Bittman to propose that fatty, sugary foods should have excise taxes imposed upon them, much the same as with cigarettes and alcohol, in order to decrease their consumption.  It is a seductively simple and appealing idea, particularly considering that food has very obviously become one of the most heavily abused drugs in America.  But there is scant evidence that excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco have had much effect on consumption.  Bittman shows that cigarette smoking has decreased as tobacco taxes have ballooned,  but that could as easily be attributable to increased awareness of the dangers of smoking, along with societal disdain for smokers in general, as to the increased cost of feeding the habit.  Alcohol taxes don’t seem to have had any discernible effect on the demand for alcoholic beverages.  Even making a subset of narcotics illegal (e.g., cocaine, heroin), and therefore extremely expensive, has in no way stamped out demand. 

Besides, taxing foods deemed unhealthy by some Czarist government agency does not speak to the source of the problem.  Obesity is the problem Bittman wants to solve, but he wishes to go about it in a round-about way.  Consumption of fatty and sugary foods does not make one fat.  Consuming more calories than are expended makes one fat.  Taxing a certain subset of foods, or even outlawing them, would not prevent someone from consuming an excess of calories from other sources.  It might even foster a black market in foods that people wish to eat–imagine gangbangers on street corners peddling Coke of the cola variety instead of coke of the white granular powder variety. 

To get at individual behaviors, there must be rewards and punishments for individuals.  Make no mistake, while the massive and increasing numbers of obese people is a societal problem inasmuch as the society pays the health costs that accrue as a result, the source of the societal problem is individual behavior.  In a previous post, I had fancied with the idea of taxing fat.  Not in food, but on people.  But that would seem cruel.  There would be howls of derision, as people made nonsensical arguments that it was their metabolism that made them sneak that half-gallon ice-cream snack in the middle of the night.  Instead of a stick, how about a carrot?  Pay people to get and keep their weight within some reasonable relation to their height.   Figure out what males and females should reasonably weigh, fudge upward by ten percent or so, and write annual checks to people who kept their weight within ten percent of what it should be according to their height. 

Phase the program in gradually.  If a person does not qualify for the checks at first, give them five years to lose the weight, and then reward them “back pay” for the five years (or hopefully less) that they missed.

Obesity in a society that pays its citizen’s health expenses is basically what economists call a free-rider problem.  Obese people consume vastly more quantities of the public healthcare square, expecting everyone else to pick up the tab.  Paying people to keep their weight in some reasonable proportion to their height might seem extravagant, but not when compared with the healthcare expenses directly resulting from obesity.  Imagine the savings if the Type II diabetes roles were reduced by half.

The program could be limited to only those that qualify for government-funded healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid), as the principle behind it is to share with the individual the savings accruing to society when they more closely watch their weight.  It could be administered by the same bureaucracy that administers the government healthcare programs.  Or, make it open to everyone, whether covered under private health insurance or not, particularly considering that Obamacare is apt to blur the distinction between private and public healthcare to oblivion if its tenets are fully enacted.  Either way, if the end result is a society that is, on average, substantially less overweight, the cost savings would be tremendous.  

We can’t refuse to treat people simply because they have eaten themselves into sickness.  A program of direct rewards for managing weight would return to the individual some of the benefits accruing to the society from their healthier lifestyle.   But first we have to acknowledge that the problem, and the solution, lies with the individual.  Taxing particular foods as unhealthy may make the tax coffers bulge, but it would do next to nothing for the bulge around individual waistlines.