The recent uproar following New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement of a ban on the sale of sugary beverages over 16 ounces has once again brought forth the question of the ability of government to manage individuals’ lifestyles and health. The mayor’s goal, like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new MyPlate educational program, is to combat the nation’s rising obesity epidemic. However, as in most instances of government attempts at social engineering, these campaigns not only push the limits of the proper role of government and step on individual liberties, but also create nefarious side effects that can undermine the stated goals and injure both those who are not affected by the assumed problem and those whom they purportedly aim to help.
The government’s agenda with MyPlate, while noble in intent, has clearly demonstrated such pernicious effects. Maintenance of an individual’s health is naturally outside the appropriate purview of the government’s responsibilities. While obesity is certainly a growing issue in the United States, every individual has different health needs and concerns. The MyPlate plan, which has the explicit goal of simplifying dietary recommendations, fails to address the nuances of each individual’s condition. This not only sends misleading messages about proper eating behavior, but also creates myriad additional complications for many.
One of the most striking problems with MyPlate is that it is too simplified and overly literal. For instance, it emphasizes “enjoy your food but eat less.” Such simplistic advice fails to teach the necessary tools needed to manage a healthy lifestyle. “Eating less” is a temporary instrument to achieve weight loss (dieting itself is problematic and often ineffective) and not a permanent mechanism to manage a healthy lifestyle or maintain a weight. In fact, restricting can lead to lack of satiation, which can develop into bingeing, or excessive restriction, which can yield anorexia or bulimia—all as pernicious and deadly as obesity. Such simplistic messages can cause negative side-effects for those who have disordered eating, those who simply need to maintain their health, and even those who suffer from obesity.
Likewise, MyPlate overly emphasizes the artificial dichotomy between “good” and “bad” foods. This can also result in unhealthy restrictive behavior towards certain “bad” foods or a psychological perception of eating that does not reflect truly healthy habits. For instance, individuals who are schooled to believe that chicken skin is a “bad” food, as MyPlate suggests, may develop guilt or regret or engage in secretive eating habits when eating or desiring such meals. While ultimately chicken skin, like many other labeled “bad” foods, can be part of a healthy diet, blanket classification of “good” and “bad” food sends an incorrect and overly simplified message to individuals. Foods do not belong in moral categories.
This can be especially dangerous for impressionable people with normal eating behavior, such as youth or those with low self-esteem. As argued, these simplified messages may compel them to inappropriately restrict their diet, which can cause secondary problems of malnourishment or the development of eating disorders. However, due to its top-down, impersonal nature, such government programs cannot provide the individualized advice that is appropriate and necessary for different types of people. In other words, the government is innately unable to target different messages to different people, an absolutely essential element for each individual’s personal dietary and nutritional needs.
Additionally, in the interest of simplicity, MyPlate fails to provide sound nutritional guidelines for the consumption of oils, fats, and sweets. None are included on the MyPlate diagram and the website largely minimizes the benefits of oils and fats, instead repeatedly focusing on the need to diminish their consumption. However, oils and fats are essential components for metabolizing certain vitamins and minerals and are a large part of providing satiation, a necessary aspect of healthy eating. Likewise, while it acknowledges that some sweets are okay, it generally disdains the consumptions of sweets and encourages restriction. The website extols, “Just don’t make treat foods an everyday choice. Limit sweet treats to special occasions.” This message is incorrectly packaged, teaching a generalized lesson that is truly only appropriate in very specific instances. Not everyone who hears this advice needs to limit sweets to “special occasions” (an ambiguous term at best). In fact, regular desserts can be part of a healthy lifestyle. For those who are not obese, MyPlate’s advice can be patently harmful. Children, for instance, can associate dessert with unhealthy lifestyles and obesity, leading to behaviors and thoughts, such as guilt and secretive eating, that can spawn other eating and psychological issues.
Obesity is only one of many health problems faced by many Americans. However, MyPlate, like many similar programs, innately fails to address the variety of Americans who suffer with other issues. While its advice may be appropriate for some—for instance, those who may need to cut back on certain foods in order to maintain their personal health—it is potentially disastrous for others. Creating a healthy lifestyle is such a nuanced and intricate endeavor that these simplified recommendations cannot be effective. But simplification is the stated purpose of MyPlate, which proclaims, “The [MyPlate] icon … serves as a quick, simple reminder to all consumers.” This is precisely the opposite direction from which these problems should be addressed. Individual health is affected by numerous factors that vary immensely for each person. Proper maintenance of an individual’s lifestyle is best achieved with a personalized, individual level of care and not with some aggregate one-size-fits-all prescription.
Thus, by encouraging individuals to manage their own health concerns (in partnership with their health providers), society will be able to successfully develop new ideas, tailor solutions to individual’s needs, and improve methods and programs in novels ways. The creative processes of experimentation, failure, and success will help individuals improve their critical assessment of their health needs, allowing a more developed understanding of a problem and its solutions and facilitating better decisions as circumstances change. This will enable individuals to have greater understanding of their health needs and thus greater ability to address potential problems. Both the individual and society will thus have greater tools and knowledge to improve each individual’s health and lifestyle.
In contrast, government can generally only apply an inflexible one-size-fits-all model that stifles innovation, makes progress difficult, produces a lackluster product, and compels an individual to blindly and unthinkingly follow a prescribed plan that may not be appropriate. It is far too difficult, costly, and resource-intensive for a government to create solutions that can be tailor-fit to individual needs. This is an important reason why government should avoid trying to micro-manage the nutritional intake of each American. It cannot succeed in solving obesity, or similar individually-oriented problems, with broad-sweeping, overly-generalized, top-down solutions, without creating further deleterious consequences. Sometimes restraint, particularly by do-gooders in the government, is better than trying to implement big government solutions.