Making Criminals of Overweight Children I think we’d all agree that kids have tough choices to make at every
turn, and thi s includes what they eat and drink. A thick, sloppy sandwich served with fries and a sugary soda, or a salad of mixed greens and vegetables from every color of the rainbow with a side of vinaigrette. Yeah, I get it. But c’mon, does anyone really think that creating junk food laws for kids is going to help? Neither the original nor the abstract of this research article, published in the August 13 journal “Pediatrics,” is available online. When it is, there is likely to be a fee. So I will depend on the most reliable review I can find, although it will be imperfect. But the above citation from our local news source is actual ly fairly typical of how the nation is covering the story. As far as I can figu re, Dr. Daniel Taber — a post-doctoral researcher at University of Illinois Chicag o — decided to look at various ways of measuring kids as a function of “competitive food laws.” Or, laws that limit the availability of foods to kids. Looking at 40 states and over 6000 kids is impressive. But my research-minded self has to won der what the hell he is measuring and what the hell he is finding. He is measuri ng kids’ “BMI” or “body mass index.” This is a derivative measurement that might be a dec ent predictor of pathology, but virtually impossible to understand in terms of e veryday reality or common sense. One clever interviewer asked that this be trans lated into terms we could relate to — pounds. Taber responded that, roughly, it w ould be 1.25 fewer pounds for a 5-foot-tall child who started out at 100 pounds in 2003. “That was just an average, so many students gained less and some gained more,” he noted. Nobody in the news networks or anyone else I can find picked up o n the potentially overwhelming insignificance of this study. It reminds me of so mething a clinical supervisor pointed out to me when I was a medical student at Beauvais in France. He was noting the significance of the dichotomy between rese arch and practice. When he said “town and gown” he was referring to the limited abil ity to extrapolate from research data to clinical practice. Like how drugs used on clinical research in women and children had never been tested in women and c hildren, a situation which is a little better now but not very much. But wait, t here’s more. The thing we are studying is how “competitive laws” for food work. Appar ently forty or so states already have them — laws which restrict children’s access t o “fast” or “junk” foods. We are studying them over a very limited period of time. But of course, they don’t work. Laws — or even suggestions — of limiting access to anythi ng do not work. Certainly not at a governmental level and not on a national lev el, either. I’m sure even those not old enough to remember prohibition have heard of it. Or m aybe have seen the “Boardwalk Empire” television series, starring Steve Buscemi. Pr ohibition is a time when people sided with gangsters. They learned to love thos e adorable law-breakers who took risks to bring people simple visceral pleasures like getting drunk. If I told someone to go on a diet where they could eat anyt hing in the world except German chocolate cake, they would likely crave German c hocolate cake before I finished the end of the sentence. Or I could say “think of anything in the world except a blue horse.” My next question would have to be “Is t he horse powder blue or royal blue?” In her highly reflective and academic book T he Case Against Lawyers, Catherine Crier attacks the U.S. legal system for havin g too many laws which even the people who enforce them can’t understand. The unde rlying belief is that you can fix things by making more laws and more rules. Ho wever, the true consequence of such a belief is to inspire people to get around the laws. This is an ideal which – and this can’t be a coincidence — males seem to wor ship, whether in the military or in sports or in business. The ideal of how muc h can we get away with without being caught. When I think of the kids in the “comp etitive laws” study and the 1.25 gained pounds over a few years, I have only one f ocus. What happens after the study? I give the kids not over six months to crea te a black-market, underground kind of junk food network. Whether it has a sweet
or salty taste, junk food is created to “sell.” This is based on a capitalistic mo del which has played into what is essentially an addiction. In the big picture, this is the truth. I am not blaming Dr. Taber, or any other academic researcher. I have been there — at least for a little while. The ideal of the double-blind placebo controlled study came to us from Avicenna, a Persian researcher who developed it in the sec ond century. I don’t know how much relevance it could have had to research then. It is certain, however, that modern society is more complex now than ever. Pee r groups, the rapidity of information travel, the sheer size and mixing of popul ations and their influences — there is a lot of going on with a lot of different f actors. One thing is as certain as the sun rising in the morning. Obesity is a multi-factorial problem. There are biochemical and neurochemical factors, as we ll as psychosocial ones. I have actually tried to draft “psycho-dynamic formulati ons” — or on-paper classifications — of the factors that make somebody obese. The bes t I’ve done is run out of paper. From social and commercial chastising of the obe se, to the symbolic “protections” by a layer of fat from the potentially destructive attentions of men, to depression with feelings of “emptiness,” to feelings of famil y or group belonging from sharing expression by obesity — the list is endless. Try ing to solve a problem like this with laws and rules is somewhere on the continu um between naiveté and an intellectual isolation that is possible only within the world of academics. When studied as indicated in the sources above, it can only serve to create fodder for the news media. And it’s as simple as just that. It i s not expected to actually solve a problem, and certainly not this one. Should l aws and rules be the preferred way to intervene, the most appropriate level woul d be that of looking at the additives that make foods addictive. This actually may be defined to include added refined sugar in food manufacture. On this leve l, I do not expect aggressive study, let alone laws. We would be flying in the face of the corporations and their money making agenda which has become larger t han humans and their rights and their well-being. But creating junk food laws for kids? I don’t think so.