Recently, I participated in a discussion about a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, during which one person expressed frustration that a tax would impinge on our freedom of choice. This concern is not new and many have argued that the government oversteps its authority when it tries to discourage consumption of foods deemed to be unhealthy. However, I found the freedom of choice argument very interesting because, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Used to be, there was one type of Oreo cookie. Now, according to NabiscoWorld.com, there are fifty varieties of Oreos to choose from. FIFTY. There is an entire aisle in the grocery store dedicated to breakfast cereals, and yet think of how many people skip breakfast altogether (the estimates I found ranged from 20-40%)! You can’t drive far without passing a fast-food joint, and the last time I went to Fedex something, they had several shelves of candy conveniently close to the cashier, lest you get hungry while standing in line. And the list goes on.

You want something, you can get it, and umpteen varieties of it. Food choices have greatly increased in the past 20-30 years, and this explosion in variety has been implicated as a factor in the increase in obesity: we are likely to consume more when we have a variety of foods to choose from rather than when our choices are limited (Physiol Behav. 1981. 26(2): 215-221.; Obes Res. 2005. 13(5): 883-890.).

Need help finding anything?

To make things worse, much of this variety comes in the form of prepared, processed foods that require little effort to consume. You can find several types of squash in the produce section, but that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling selection of chips in the snack food aisle, ready to eat as soon as you get them out of the store.

And yet, there’s also choice when it comes to exercise. So many different exercise classes, an overabundance of weight machines for every muscle group, a wide array of training protocols and cardio equipment at which you can stand, sit and lie. A flavor to suit every potential exerciser. All this, but about 70% of Americans do not exercise regularly, citing “lack of time” as the main reason…so the myriad of choices hasn’t resulted in more interest…

…however, consider that cable television providers offer over 900 channels of distractions. With that kind of competition for your time and appetite, is it surprising that many people have difficulty establishing healthy food and exercise routines?

My take on this is that we’re nowhere near in danger of running out of choices. Rather, we have far too many selections of the wrong kind of stuff for our own good. Most people expect government intervention in the food industry so that they can be confident that their food is safe. At the same time, Americans freak out if the government proposes legislation to limit access to unhealthy food because that’s viewed as infringing on our personal freedom.

And besides, we’re all smart enough to make healthy choices. Right?

If you’re interested in food issues, I highly recommend setting aside time for viewing Prof. Kelly Brownell’s course, The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food (psyc123, filmed during the Fall 2008 semester), offered through Open Yale (it’s free!). Brownell is the director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and an excellent lecturer, and the information presented ranges from interesting to jaw-dropping. I’m not prepared to comment on the course as a whole since I’m only on the ninth lecture (there are 23 in all), but will say that it’s already exceeded my expectations.

Here’s a description, taken directly from the course website:

“This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.”

I strongly urge you to view the lecture topics and see if anything appeals. Happy learning!

Difficulties with the link above? Go to: http://oyc.yale.edu/psychology/the-psychology-biology-and-politics-of-food/