Buckle Up – Changing Food Defaults

The other day, my fortune cookie read, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  After wondering if this were really a fortune or simply a common cliche, I started to think about the capacity for food legislation to change people’s behavior.  Every person has at least some rudimentary understanding of which foods are healthy and unhealthy, and yet they frequently don’t make the healthiest choices.  How can the government’s efforts to point out things most people already know really change their eating behavior?

Today, whether we realize or not, a series of defaults defines what we eat.  Most McDonald’s vendors will automatically serve Happy Meals with fries and soda, not apple slices and milk, although both options are available.  Most people consume more than one serving of cereal each morning.  High-calorie foods cost less than healthier fruits and vegetables.  As the government passes food legislation, these laws aim to change the defaults that currently exist in American society, making healthier options more readily available, cheaper, and in smaller portions.

One of the greatest success stories of how the government worked to change the defaults is when it comes to seat belt safety.  It’s hard to imagine a world without highway signs that read, “Buckle up! It’s the law.”  However, it was only about forty years ago when seat belts weren’t even found in most cars.  The first seat belt law took effect in 1968, requiring all cars to have seat belts.  New York was the first state to make seat belt use compulsory in 1984.  Today, only one state – New Hampshire – does not have some law addressing seat belt use.

Other defaults that followed government legislation: vaccination and occupational safety.  As a January American Journal of Public Health article pointed out, these public health success stories all have four elements in common:

  1. A body of pervasive research
  2. Strong advocacy
  3. Widespread media exposure
  4. Policies discouraging unhealthy behavior

Fortunately, when it comes to food, all four elements already exist in some form.  Research has shown growing levels of obesity across all age groups (over 30% of adults in the US are obese, up from 10% 50 years ago).  People have rallied for healthier foods, as exemplified by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign that battles childhood obesity.  The media, both newspapers and television (and this blog), has many health-related interest stories.  And the government has started to pass laws, such as those concerning menu labeling (see my recent post).

Most food legislation begins on the local level, a test-run before state and federal adoption.  Just as with seat belts, changing of the defaults is gradual, yet effective.  However, even if the government makes healthier options more readily available, cheaper, and in smaller portions, will people actually change their behavior?  It’s not like seat belts; you can’t get arrested for not eating an apple each day.  Perhaps a new adage can come from the “horse to water” cliche: “A government can help people make healthier food choices, but it cannot force people to eat more healthily.  But the government just can’t stop trying.”  I don’t know if the saying will actually gain in popularity, but you get the message.

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One Response to Buckle Up – Changing Food Defaults

  1. Art says:

    Great post. I think the ideal middle ground is steering consumers toward better choices without making their choices for them. However, even that anecdote, when applied, begets more gray areas.

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