The "obesity epidemic" is often used to justify myriad new regulations targeting certain types of food and restaurants. Yet these regulatory efforts really have less to do with making people healthy than increasing government control over how private businesses run their companies and how citizens run their private lives.
In the war on obesity, fast food restaurants have absorbed most of the attacks. In San Francisco and New York City, toys are banned in fast food kid's meals - the theory being that children only want fast food for the toys; minus toys, children will immediately begin requesting hummus and carrot sticks. Another regulation requires fast food restaurants to put calorie information on their menus under the theory that when people see their favorite burger has 800-plus calories, they'll jog to the nearest salad bar.
In Los Angeles, a city council member - who clearly doubts her constituents' ability to exhibit any self-control - has gone a step further and introduced legislation to ban the construction of new fast food restaurants in her district.
Some Americans concerned about their neighbors' health may applaud such efforts, but the science simply does not back up the presumption of a link between obesity and fast food. In fact, in a 2010 report examining the issue, researchers found that when consumers eat fast food, they often eat less the rest of the day, which offsets their overall daily calorie intake. The report also revealed that obese people consume most of their calories at home, not at restaurants. Another study released last year examined the eating habits of 5,000 Californians and found that as their income increased, so did their consumption of fast food meals - so much for the urban legend that the poor are the primary consumers of fast food.
Despite this information, food activists and regulators continue to portray low-income Americans as helpless when faced with the power of fast food and desperately in need of government action to prod them toward "healthy" food decisions. Food activists suggest that the reason poor families turn to fast food is because they are so overburdened by multiple jobs and lack the time and money to make simple, healthy meals. More insultingly, some food activists claim, without embarrassment, that low-income individuals simply don't understand the easy-to-read nutrition labels on the back of food packages and that's why they choose candy over grapes. Clearly, for many interested in "helping" low-income Americans, poverty simply equals stupidity.
Research released last month, however, appears to spoil their rhetorical - and patronizing - soup.
Share Our Strength, one of the nation's most respected anti-hunger organizations, released a provocative new report: "It's Dinnertime: A Report on Low-Income Families' Efforts to Plan, Shop for, and Cook Healthy Meals," which shows low-income Americans are far more independent and aware of the food choices than the food nanny statists would have us all believe.
Among the surprising findings is that 8 in 10 low-income families make dinner at home and from scratch at least five times a week. Families only eat fast food on average one night a week. The report also shows that while some families do struggle to cook healthy meals every night (what family doesn't?), a whopping 85 percent of low-income families polled said they want to make healthy meals and believe eating healthy is realistic for them. The Share Our Strength study is just the latest in a growing body of research that shatters the assumptions we have about low-income families' eating habits.
So why do the poor suffer from obesity at higher rates than higher-income people? Clearly, the jury is out on that question. But one thing is for sure: Eating food that tastes good is a relatively cheap pastime, say, compared to sailing, golfing or going to the gym. Human beings seek pleasure no matter their economic status and some people might simply choose to live with the physical consequences of that choice.
Personal choice is a bitter pill for food activists, regulators and big-government enthusiasts who prefer to blame the obesity "epidemic" on big business - like fast food chains - and portray poor Americans as children in desperate need of rescue from their uncontrollable food urges. As this latest study shows though, low-income Americans are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and their family's food needs.
Julie Gunlock is the director of the Independent Women's Forum's Women for Food Freedom project.
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