Last weekend, after a day of whitewater kayaking on the Cheat River, I stopped by Little Sandy’s diner at Bruceton Mills and ordered the meatloaf dinner platter with mashed potatoes, a large Coke, and a slice of homemade pie. I wasn’t at Little Sandy’s for their health food. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in nutrition to know that I was in for a gut-buster of a meal. But apparently some West Virginia lawmakers think they know better.
Mountain State residents already know the difference between French fries and fruit cups. Consumers don’t need more nutritional information. National obesity rates suggest that while we’ve been obsessed with the “calories-in” side of the weight-loss equation, it’s the “calories-out” side that will make the real difference.
Consider that Americans can buy the same soda and the same hamburgers in all 50 states. At the same time, the slimmest state in America, Colorado, reports one of the highest concentrations of fast-food restaurants. And the most obese state in the country, Mississippi, ranks third lowest in fast-food concentration.
This is no surprise. 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.”
Food regulation has a terrible track record. Just look at West Virginia’s decades-old tax on “handling or distribution of all bottled soft drinks and all soft drink syrups.” Has it made a single person slimmer?
Of course not, and for a simple reason: Because physical activity — not fast-food or soda consumption — is linked to slimmer waistlines. Of the top 10 most-obese states, government surveys show nine of them are also the most sedentary. The residents of the most obese state — Mississippi — report the lowest rates of leisure-time physical activity in the country.
Proponents of menu labeling argue that calorie posting will make consumers healthier by eating less. “We cannot have a healthy economy without healthy people,” said Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha. Even if — as a recent Yale University study suggested — only six out of 4,311 people check calorie content in restaurants, making the information available can’t hurt.
But in fact there is evidence to suggest that menu labeling may even do more harm than good.
According to Brian Wansink, executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, nutrition labels on menus generate a phenomenon called a “health halo.” Consumers who order an item labeled with a relatively low calorie count often reward themselves by eating “compensation calories.” One study found that this effect led Subway customers to eat more calories than those who ate at a McDonald’s. In other words, menu labeling could actually lead to weight gain.
The food cops have arrogantly decided that they know what’s best for you — what’s best for all of us. If you want the choice back in your own hands, where it belongs, call your state legislators and tell them you’re smart enough to decide for yourself.
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.