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Do We Have the Right to Eat Unhealthy Food?

Posted Nov 07 2010 3:50am

by Barbara Berkeley, MD

They're on the horizon.  Laws and ordinances that control food choice. 

With our population and, more to the point, our kids getting uncontrollably fatter and more diabetic, anxieties are increasing.  How are we supposed to control this problem? While food manufacturers pay lip service to the idea that their products need to get healthier, their modest efforts are unlikely to make much of a difference.   Why not?  Because the foods we need to be eating for health are not manufactured at all.   Foods that require complicated production are not optimal.   While we may have gotten away with eating them in the past, our best bet during this raging obesity epidemic would be to avoid feeding them to our families.  How do we encourage people to change the way they look at food?  That's the million dollar question.

Thus far, our default idea about how to engender change is to throw the responsibility on the eaters.  YOU should do a better job of picking healthy foods!  YOU PARENTS should make perfect choices for your kids!  This ridiculous strategy has been a disaster.  It hasn't changed a thing.  But repeating this mantra plays into our guilt  ("Gee,  I really should be making better choices...") and relieves food producers and restaurants of any responsibility for making real changes.  

Because none of this stuff is making any difference, local government and even the Feds are showing an interest in getting involved.  Some would say that this trend toward legislating health augers the coming of the Nanny State.   Included in the new health care legislation, for instance,  is a provision that requires larger restaurant chains to post calories on menu boards.  New York City has instituted campaigns against trans fats, calories and salt. San Francisco just passed a controversial ordinance that prevents McDonald's from including toys in their Happy Meals.  They will, however, permit toys to be given away if the meal meets the city's definition of healthy.  Should your city be telling you what to eat?  Complicated question.

In my own little world,  I have been part of an initiative that has raised some hackles.  We've moved to eliminate unhealthy food choices from the cafeterias of our two hospitals.  Goodbye biscuits and gravy.  Hello low cholesterol eggs, fruits and vegetables..  The changes are planned to be fairly sweeping.  The foods that we designate to be unhealthy (using accepted nutritional guidelines) are out.  Admittedly, we---not the cafeteria patrons---are making the choices.  Fair?

No battle in the current Food Wars raises so much ire as the issue of someone telling someone else what he should and shouldn't eat.  In our own situation,  some employees have reacted with righteous indignation.  We have no right to tell them what to eat, they say.  They should have the right to eat as they please.

But is that correct?  When an employer is paying for the health care of its employees, is it wrong to try to encourage healthy behaviors when possible?  In addition, in the case of a hospital, you are dealing with a health care facility whose stated mission includes an emphasis on prevention and wellness.  Is it wrong to insist that each part of the hospital adheres to the mission, including the cafeteria?  Further, while each of us has a clear right to eat whatever we want in our own homes, do we have any right to tell someone else what to feed us?  Would we be angry, for example, if the menu at a dinner given by a friend omitted french fries?  In my view, each person, each entity, is in control of the food they choose to serve and the message they choose to send through that food.

Employees make the case that they are captives while working..  By limiting them to healthy foods, they have lost  their right to eat as they please.  But in reality, employers who choose to keep workplace foods healthy are generally just making it a bit more difficult to get certain foods.  Finding them means going out for lunch or bringing one's own meal.   Does this pose an unreasonable burden if nutritious, healthful foods are freely available on site? 

These are the kinds of questions we are going to wrestle with in the coming years.  Here is my view of this particular issue..  Job sites and schools have the right to choose the foods they want to provide.  Just as they can ask people to adhere to a dress code, or insist they not smoke on the premises,  they should be able to dictate the type of food environment they want to create,as long as it protects employee health the well-being.

A Mexican restaurant has chosen a clear theme, and no one would insist that they also serve General Gao's Chicken.  So too, can employers choose to make a statement about what they feed employees.  In the case of our hospital's cafeterias, we chose the theme of wellness.  As a health care provider, we wanted our mission to be reflected in what we fed not only employees but the visiting public.  As  all of us move forward, more and more workplaces and schools will be faced with similar choices.  By limiting obesogenic foods and promoting fresh, healthy ones, I believe we can actually take some effective steps toward changing the eating environment.





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