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How To Discourage Unhealthy Eating: Make It Expensive And Make People Feel Bad About It

A lab experiment shows that some public health food policies, from healthy food subsidies to anti-obesity advertisements, may only have a small effect on eating habits. Taxes, though, work pretty well.

We don't really know how to encourage healthy eating. Calorie counts on menus are a popular idea among health experts (and a requirement under the Affordable Care Act). But the evidence that they work is shaky at best. Research into other policy options, such as calorie taxes, subsidies for better food, and healthy food advertising, is limited. The work has tended to be second-hand or at 30,000 feet. It hasn't involved actual people in randomized trials.

That's what makes a new study involving 258 "lab rats" unusual. It compares various behavior-modifying techniques by giving people money to spend and seeing how they react.

After first asking all volunteers to view a food menu and make choices, researchers split the participants into groups and exposed them to one of six treatments: a menu on which unhealthy items were 20% more expensive; a menu on which healthy items were 20% less expensive; healthy food advertising; anti-obesity advertising; a combination of the tax and anti-obesity advertising; and a combination of the tax and healthy food ads. The lab rats had $10 to spend but could add in their $15 participation fee if they liked.

Three of the treatments proved effective in reducing calories, cholesterol, and carbohydrate intake. "The results indicate that the unhealthy foods tax, healthy foods advertising, and unhealthy foods tax combined with anti-obesity advertising significantly reduced the content of some nutrients of concern in meal selections," the paper says.

The tax plus anti-obesity ads combination had the most effect, statistically speaking. The other three—including anti-obesity ads on their own and the subsidy and healthy ad combo—were ineffective. And none of the treatments did much to reduce added sugar and salt consumption.

One of the researchers, Harry Kaiser, a professor of applied economics at Cornell, cautions that lab experiments don't necessarily translate to the real world. But he says they can be useful to show relative effectiveness.

Kaiser suggests we ditch the idea of healthy food subsidies (e.g. making salads cheap) and employ a grab-bag of other policies. "The way to fix the obesity problem will be a holistic mix of several policies, rather than just one policy," he says. "[That] includes positive food advertising, negative food advertising, limits to unhealthy advertising, menu labels, bans on junk food in schools, and excise taxes on products with added sugar, high fat, high sodium, and other unhealthy nutrients."

The team is now planning a larger volunteer-based study. Other countries, meanwhile, are going firmly down the tax route. France and Ireland have soda levies. Hungary has taxes on high salt, fat, and sugar products. And Mexico, where obesity rates are higher than in the U.S., recently approved a tax as well (Denmark, though, abandoned its measure last year when people crossed into Sweden to eat the same stuff anyway). Over time, these real-world experiments should give us a better idea of what works and what does not.

[Image: Fast food via Flickr user SteFou!]

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  • That's great and all to tax the blatantly unhealthy foods (like a Big Mac, for example), but eating healthy is simply just going to have to start becoming a lot less expensive for such an idea to ever work. Low income people still have to be able to afford to eat enough...

  • Never feel bad eating bacon. People just need more education about their choices. I work out while looking at pictures of fatty food. It's like a dog chasing a bone. Some kind of weird psychology experiment I read somewhere. It works for me. Check out pictures of fatty food here, choose any exercise routine and stick to it for 60 days.

  • "products with added sugar, high fat, high sodium, and other unhealthy nutrients"

    Unhealthy nutrients? You get poisoned if you drink too much water as well, why not tax that harder, and campaign against it's use?

    No one food group (proteins, fats, carbs etc) is innately unhealthy, the disproportionate way people eat them and the lack of an even remotely active life style is what does it.

    Try feeding a wolf or bear (or any other carni-/omnivore, like a boar) with a diet based on the food pyramid (lots of carbs, plenty of vegetables, and little to no animal products, fatty meats and proteins) and watch that animal eat itself to death.

  • Alan R Horn

    I have the perfect policy idea: How about we just mind our own business and respect peoples' choices...even if we find them to be unhealthy or unappealing ourselves? People are going to eat what they want to eat regardless of policy or policies. Besides, no one is entitled to make other people's decisions for them; the principles of pro-choice hold as true for appetite as they do for abortion. Have we truly become so pompous as to honestly believe that we know what's best for other people more than they do?

    While it is true that the rate of obesity has increased over the years, food and food quality only factors into a part of that increase...over-stimulation, increased stress and anxiety, over-utilized medications, and the increase of sedentary work vs. physical labor in the job market need to be considered as well. When you start to discuss this problem within a scope of "policies," it tells me that you don't understand that there are no quantitative constants in human action.

  • Alan, I do understand your point. The problem comes when people's choices become a problem in other people's lives. I'm talking from the public healthcare cost of treating patients that got sick "by choice" (smokers, obese, undisciplined diabetics etc). I'm also talking about sitting by an extreme obese person in a tiny airplane.

    On top of that, I'd suggest you watch the documentary Food, Inc. I just watched it and it made me realize that not all of our choices are free ones. Most of them are influenced by the ones making the policies. And they have made policies that make people eat more unhealthy food. Not a choice, a created habit.

  • Even though it makes sense, don't feel this would be a final solution for the problem. I believe digging deeper into the question and understanding what attracts people to unhealthy foods in the first place could show more insights and emphatic ways to solve than just taxing. it's complex and I totally agree it's not a "one-policy" solution.