Self-appointed health “experts” in and out of government are using the economic recession as an opportunity to regulate, legislate, and restrict our food choices.

Reuters reports that “the specter of ‘recession pounds” is becoming a favorite talking point of health professionals. “Recession-proof eating” is likely to become a hot 2009 trend, according to the Chicago Tribune. And “a diet for a new Depression” is needed, one nutritionist recently urged.

This enthusiasm has bled into state and local governments. Lawmakers from New York to California have been pushing for everything from soda taxes and ingredient bans to mandatory weight monitoring of children.

When consumers are already hurting, where does the traction for such consumer-unfriendly regulation come from? Mostly from health activists who are pushing a scare campaign with claims that inexpensive foods contribute to an “obesity epidemic.”

Many of the health activists urging President Barack Obama to “take bold and urgent action to reverse the obesity epidemic,” as one recent petition put it, are the same rabble-rousers who have been insisting our food doesn’t cost enough.

Among them is Kelly Brownell, the father of the infamous “Twinkie Tax,” who frets over “unhealthy food” that is “convenient, accessible, good-tasting, heavily promoted, and cheap.”

Another signatory of the petition, Marion Nestle, has complained that “food is too cheap in this country.” Michael Jacobson, whose Center for Science in the Public Interest organized the petition, once admitted that his group “could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses, [and] meat.”

Higher food prices is not something most Americans would like to see, especially the 36 million the USDA has classified as living in “food-insecure households.” Times are tough, and the last thing we need is politicians trying to make us pay more for a hamburger and a drink.
And besides, the very idea that economic recessions raise obesity rates is fictional.

Activists whine that fast food is a primary recession-related obesity culprit. But evidence says they’re wrong. A study published this year by economists from Northwestern University and UC Berkeley found “no evidence of a causal link between restaurants and obesity.” They concluded that “public health policies targeting restaurants are unlikely to reduce obesity but could negatively affect consumer welfare.”

And government data show there’s no shortage of activist-friendly foods like fresh produce. Between 1970 and 2005 the availability of fruits and vegetables increased by 13 and 23 percent, respectively. In 2004, the USDA’s Economic Research Service found “127 different ways to eat a serving of fruits and vegetables for less than the price of a 3-ounce candy bar.”

But the ultimate irony of activists’ urgency in linking obesity to recessions is that during brighter economic times they were arguing the exact opposite.

Michael Jacobson argued in 1994 that “people tend to eat most healthily during hard times.” And Marion Nestle, the academic who contends that “food is too cheap” when she talks to policymakers, changes her tune when she’s trying to convince people to eat healthy.

“People always assume fresh produce costs more,” Nestle told a Cape Cod newspaper. “But it actually costs more to buy processed and junk foods.”
Recession or no recession, the entire premise of regulating food prices to curb obesity is misguided. Statistics indicate that the nutritional content of our diets (“calories in”) is virtually the same as it was decades ago.

But the other side of the weight loss equation — physical inactivity — is a well-documented and undeniable contributor to obesity.

The most obese state in the country, Mississippi, has the lowest rates of leisure-time physical activity in the country. Yet the state ranks third lowest in fast-food density. The slimmest state, Colorado, reports one of the highest rates of leisure-time physical activity, despite having one of the highest concentrations of fast-food.
As the founders of the National Weight Control Registry suggest, America’s failure to get trimmer can be largely attributed to our narrow, food-only approach. “We focus too much on diet and not enough on physical activity,” they say.

Here’s some good news: Going out for a walk or a run is still free. In good times and bad, individuals still have more power over their health than the government.

J. Justin Wilson is the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.