No Thanks, I'm Full

What can government do to combat obesity? Probably not much.

Having managed to lose about 30 pounds over the last few years, I have some thoughts of my own on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s recommendation that we combat obesity by increasing the minimum wage. Obesity is a real problem, and losing excess weight is not easy. One might be tempted to use the government to help, but if there’s a public health problem that can be addressed with the sort of top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that is typical for government, obesity is not it.

Let me tell you how I managed to lose those pounds: I watched my weight like a hawk, set a precise, gradually dropping schedule for what I expected my weight to be, and skipped meals when I weighed more than I was supposed to.

That last part is something that just about every dietician in the country will tell you not to do, and I suspect that nine times out of 10 they’ll be right. For most people, disrupting the usual eating schedule means they get really hungry and either resort to snacking or stuff themselves when they finally do sit down for a meal. Fortunately, that didn’t happen to me, but I wouldn’t recommend my approach to most people; it just happens to work in my case.

And therein lies the problem: People’s appetites and metabolisms vary quite a lot. Aside from the very basic principle of eating less and exercising more, finding an effective way to lose weight is going to be a very individual thing. That’s not libertarian dogma, that’s human biology.

So while making fast food more expensive might help a few, there’s no reason to think it would help many. And raising the minimum wage wouldn’t just affect fast-food eateries; it would raise prices at supermarkets, diners and even organic co-ops — that free-range asparagus isn’t going to just march up on the shelf for you. So in the end, to the extent that food choices are driven by price, the incentives to eat fast food versus healthier food won’t necessarily change all that much.

There’s always the temptation among well-intentioned people to push others into doing things that are “good for them” and impose solutions from above. But from my experience, obesity just isn’t that simple. To the extent there’s going to be a solution, it will be to empower people: get basic information out there, tell the public what their options are and then let those same people figure out what works for themselves. There’s no reason to think that government would do a better job of informing the public than private foundations would, and no reason to think that new regulations or laws would be of much help to anyone.