By Brendan Denvir, 04/06/2014
In recent years, there has been much debate over the extent to which the government should act in controlling the obesity epidemic in the United States. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while in office, proposed legislation that brought this debate to the forefront of policy discussions, at least among New Yorkers, by issuing a ban on the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces. Among health professionals, nutritionists, and health care economists this seemed like a common sense public health measure to decrease sugar intake among Americans and slow the rising rates of obesity and diabetes. However, to many Americans, like myself, a broad stroke ban on these beverages seemed like a restriction of individual freedoms and a half-assed solution to a problem with a more serious underlying cause. That is, Americans know very little about nutrition and no one is doing anything to teach us about it.
The FDA recently proposed making changes to the format of the Nutrition Facts label — you know, that thing on food packages that nobody reads — in the hopes of better informing Americans about what they are eating. Most significantly, the change in the label increases the font size of the calorie count and adds the category "Added Sugars" to the long list of nutrition information. This long overdue update of the Nutrition Facts label falls along the lines of a better solution to the problem of rising obesity rates (compared to the sugar ban) but, let's be honest, it is not going to change much of anything. Educating the public about nutrition, whether it be the FDA, USDA, or some other government initiative, has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult task. This is most likely due to the fact that nutrition information is overly complicated.
For one, nutrition information is constantly changing in accordance to emerging evidence (we didn't even know sugar was that bad for you until like 5 years ago) and there never seems to be a definitive consensus. Studies say things like, "our results suggest" and "there appears to be a correlation." While publishing these studies is an important part of the scientific process — i.e. they provide useful information for other researchers — they are not relevant to the average American. We do not have time to conduct meta-analyses of the thousands of nutrition-related studies that are published each year. In fact, we need to be shielded from these studies as they often contradict one another and dilute whatever important nutrition information is actually out there. Nutrition information is also difficult to comprehend because it breaks food down into macromolecules that most of us do not really care about (eat this many carbs, this many proteins, and this many fats). While this is all well and good for nutritionists, it can be a bit confusing for the average American. Americans are busy, hard working cogs in the machine that is our capitalist country and we simply don't have time to calculate the percent of our diet that is soluble fiber.
So, when telling us how to eat, maybe simplify it to something like "Not too much!" or change nutrition labels on fatty foods to things like, "Woah! This is a lot. Hit the gym later." I don't know what the real solution is but it has to be something that works to simplify nutrition information in the hopes of creating a more widespread comprehension of what's healthy and what's not. Because when I start contemplating the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats in my McDonald's quarter-pounder, it is obvious that the message got lost on me somewhere.