Rules Hard to Swallow

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

New Yorkers who were prepared to get their soda fix in smaller amounts this week gulped a sigh of relief Monday, when a judge struck down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s rule limiting the size of sugar-laden drinks.

The rule, an attempt to curb obesity, would have prohibited the sale of nondiet soda and other sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces at venues such as movie theaters, pizzerias and sports arenas. However, it would not apply to supermarkets or convenience stores.

In his ruling, New York state Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling said Bloomberg overstepped his boundaries by sidestepping City Council. He also said the regulations were arbitrary, excluded some beverages with higher sugar content, and did not prevent patrons from getting refills, which presumably would defeat the purpose of the rule.

The decision to block the ban is a wise one — and not just for the reasons stated by the judge. While few would dispute that drinking such large quantities of soda is an unhealthy habit, allowing the government to regulate portion size sets a dangerous precedent.

There are plenty of other foods that are laden with calories and little nutritional value. Shall we limit the size of a tub of popcorn at the movie theater? Or the number of scoops in an ice cream sundae?

Most candy has no value at all, except the small pleasure it gives those who eat it. Should we eliminate it completely?

What is the role of government in making us healthier eaters?

That issue has been brought to the forefront recently in another arena — the school cafeteria.

The first academic year under new school lunch program guidelines has encountered its share of hiccups — and not the kind you get from guzzling that carton of fat-free milk on your lunch tray too fast.

The main complaints: The food tastes worse and the reduction in protein and calories is leaving kids hungry.

As with many such endeavors, one can hope this one will improve with some trial and error. Already, for instance, the USDA lifted its caps on grains and protein in December in response to school input.

But successful implementation of the new guidelines likely suffered from a planning process that failed to involve the very people most affected by it — the students eating the school lunches.

There are many parents who have failures big and small when it comes to serving the most nutritious meals for children. Few parents, however, would actually protest the idea that their children are served a healthy meal at school.

And, unlike adult soda drinkers, children must relinquish some of the control over what they eat to their elders, who presumably should know better.

But if much of that healthy meal is ending up in the garbage can, rather than the stomach, who is to benefit?

Offering healthier school lunches is only part of the equation. Getting kids to eat them is another. And a third, and perhaps most important, component is forming healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

A school lunch program — or a mayoral decree — that leaves the consumer out of the equation is not likely to accomplish its goals.

A recent study out of Cornell University would seem to prove that theory.

Based on the idea that forcing students to take healthy foods could result in “reactance and avoidance behaviors,” researchers employed a behavioral science principle known as “libertarian paternalism” to encourage students to make healthy choices on their own.

The idea is to preserve the students’ freedom to choose, while using behavioral cues to influence their choices.

The study involved makeovers for two school cafeterias in western New York in about three hours at a cost of under $50. The minor changes designed to influence behavior included displaying fruits and vegetables more attractively in nice bowls or tiered stands, and training cafeteria workers to offer verbal cues, such as “Would you like to try an apple?”

Researchers found those simple adjustments increased fruit consumption by 18 percent and vegetable consumption by a whopping 25 percent.

“This not only preserves choice, but has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less healthy options,” researcher Andrew Hanks wrote.

The logic is fairly simple: Students, like soda drinkers and most everyone else, are more likely to consume what they choose for themselves.

In other words, the best way to fight obesity is to encourage people to make healthy choices, not take away their freedom to choose.

Shoving anything down someone’s throat usually has unpleasant consequences.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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