Aside from the air we breathe, nothing is more important than the food and drink we consume. Not healthcare, not employment, not housing — nothing. Obviously, the best healthcare, the highest-paying job, and the biggest mansion in the world can’t do anything for you if you don’t eat. For someone to dictate to someone else the food and drink he should and shouldn’t consume is the ultimate in paternalism; for the state to tell someone the food and drink he should and shouldn’t consume is the ultimate in nanny-state paternalism.
Although the government’s war on poverty has been around about fifty years, its war on drugs about forty years, and its war on terrorism about ten years, it was only last year that the government declared war on childhood obesity. First Lady Michelle Obama has made this latest war her signature issue. “Obesity in this country is nothing less than a public health crisis,” said the president’s wife. She further claims that because military leaders say that one in four young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight, “childhood obesity isn’t just a public health threat, it’s not just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well.”
But the first lady is not alone. To help fight the war on childhood obesity, Congress last year passed, and President Obama signed into law, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This new law, which amends the Child Nutrition Act, the Food and Nutrition Act, and the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, gives the government more power to decide what kinds of foods can be sold at schools. School-sponsored fundraisers like candy sales are exempt, but only if they are “infrequent within the school.”
What many Americans probably don’t realize is that the federal government is not just concerned about what children eat in school. Since 1980, and every five years since then, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have joined forces to publish Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The 112-page seventh edition dated 2010 has just been published. It provides nutritional guidelines for all Americans two years and older. It is based on the 453-page Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.
This edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans reduce their daily sodium intake, as well as their consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, refined grains, and alcohol. It recommends that Americans increase their consumption of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, and seafood. It also recommends that Americans choose a variety of protein foods and foods that contain more potassium, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D. And, of course, it is also recommended that Americans “increase physical activity and reduce time spent in sedentary behaviors.”
There are two problems with these dietary guidelines, one nutritional and one philosophical.
Some physicians, nutritionists, and health professionals would strongly disagree with some of what is recommended in the Guidelines. For example, the demonization of cholesterol, butter, saturated fat, and unpasteurized dairy products, the dismissal of the glycemic index and the recommendation that 45 to 65 percent of one’s caloric intake should be from carbohydrates, and the lack of any warning about the dangers of aspartame, soy, and genetically modified foods. In fact, some of the above individuals blame the government itself for contributing to the current obesity and diabetes epidemics because it accepted the “lipid hypothesis” and the “cholesterol myth” that links dietary fat to coronary heart disease and recommended an unhealthy excess of carbohydrates in the form of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta at the bottom of its food pyramid.
There is no question that obesity is a growing problem in America. If government figures in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are to be believed, in 2008, 10 percent of children ages 2 to 5 were obese, 20 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were obese, 18 percent of adolescents were obese, and 34 percent of adults were obese. A visit to your local buffet will probably confirm these figures.
But even if the government recruited the best and brightest nutritional scientists to solve the deepest and darkest mysteries of metabolism, diet, nutrition, exercise, and weight loss, even if they came up with the perfect diet to ensure that every American leads a long and healthy life, even if they won the war on obesity, and even if they did their work without government funding — there would still be a problem with the government’s issuing dietary guidelines.
It’s not that libertarians are indifferent to the obesity epidemic, unconcerned about the tragedy of childhood obesity, and dismissive of the health risks associated with being obese.
The more important issue is the role of government in the family and society. It is just simply not the purpose of government to issue nutrition guidelines, make food pyramids, wage war on obesity, conduct scientific research, subsidize agriculture, promote or demonize certain foods, monitor school lunches, ban unpasteurized dairy products, encourage healthy eating and exercise, regulate food production and labeling, and gather statistics on obesity.
And unlike programs like Social Security, which some people say we just can’t abolish because there is no free-market alternative, in the case of diet and nutrition there are already scores if not hundreds of private organizations in existence offering analysis and advice on a myriad of health-, medical-, food-, exercise-, nutrition-, and diet-related subjects.
But, it is argued, with so many organizations offering such a variety of opinions there is no way to know what is right and so, it is claimed, we need the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to serve as the final arbiter. And what about the people who are just too lazy or too mentally deficient to do any reading and research on their own? Don’t we need the government to take care of those people by issuing things like dietary guidelines?
But how do we know that the government will get it right? Just look at how many times the Food and Drug Administration has gotten it wrong on drug policy with deadly consequences for tens of thousands of Americans. And what about those people who are just too lazy or too mentally deficient to read and follow the government’s pronouncements and guidelines? Should the state spoon-feed them every day and force them to exercise?
Once the government dictates to us the food and drink we should and shouldn’t consume, there is no stopping its reach into the family and society. And as Ludwig von Mises pointed out:
It is a fact that no paternal government, whether ancient or modern, ever shrank from regimenting its subjects’ minds, beliefs, and opinions. If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away.
The issue is one of freedom. Freedom to consume or not to consume. Freedom to exercise or not to exercise. Freedom to make one’s own health and welfare decisions. Freedom to not have to fund the FDA, USDA, and HHS bureaucracies. Freedom from a nanny state. And yes, freedom to be obese.
As G.K. Chesterton reminds us:
The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.
The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be taken with a grain of salt, but no more than a grain lest you fun afoul of the government-recommended daily allowance.