Posted by David A. Lehrer
We argued that it was a misguided effort to deal with childhood obesity and nutrition with an over-reaching and poorly thought out strategy. Neither the evidence nor logic supported such a draconian measure.
We are not alone.
This morning the Los Angeles Times editorialized on the very same bill and raised issues similar to ours: 1) the problem of childhood obesity is a large and complicated one, 2) the presence of countless other sources of unhealthy foods near schools calls into question the efficacy of a food truck ban, 3) academic studies have found that adults often make the poor food choices for the kids from near-school vendors, it’s not clear that the state has a role in those decisions, and 4) research suggests that the evidence isn’t at all clear that proximity to junk and fast food is a major contributor to obesity.
The Times’ editorial shares our view, that “once school is out of session…it’s time for the government to bow out of personal food decisions.”
Also of interest and relevant, is a column that my son, Jonah Lehrer, wrote this week in his Head Case column in The Wall Street Journal, about obesity and why some of the facile conclusions (e.g. gluttony) as to the causes of obesity are off-base.
What makes us consume that last slice of pizza or chocolate cake, even when we’re no longer hungry? One common answer is that obesity is a byproduct of gluttony: People can’t stop eating because they love eating too much. In a puritanical world, this leads many to view obesity as a kind of character flaw.
But this explanation turns out to be exactly backward. According to a new study from Kyle Burger and Eric Stice at the Oregon Research Institute, those who overeat may actually get less pleasure from food. So they’re forced to consume larger quantities (and added calories) to achieve an equivalent reward.
The researchers began by asking 151 adolescents about eating habits and food cravings. Then, they stuck the teens in a brain scanner while showing them a picture of a milkshake followed by a few sips of the real thing. They were particularly interested in looking at the response of the dopamine reward pathway in the brain, a cortical network responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things.
By comparing the response of the reward pathway to the eating habits of the adolescents, the scientists were able to show that those who ate the most ice cream showed the least activation in their reward areas when consuming the milkshake. This suggests that they were eating more in desperate compensation, trying to make up for their indifferent dopamine neurons. People crave pleasure, and they don’t stop until they get their fill, even if means consuming the entire pint of Häagen-Dazs.
This research builds on previous work by Dr. Stice documenting the dangerous feedback loop of overeating. Although people struggling with obesity tend to have less-responsive reward pathways—they even have fewer dopamine receptors—overeating makes the problem worse, further reducing the pleasure from each bite. Like an alcoholic who needs to consume ever-larger quantities of liquor to achieve the same level of intoxication, individuals with “hypofunctioning reward circuits” are forced to eat bigger portions in search of the same level of satisfaction. It’s an addiction with diminishing returns.
What the research that Jonah cites confirms and what the Times buttresses is the wrongheadedness of the simplistic solution offered by Assemblyman Monning (the author of AB 1678). Limiting choices may be the exact wrong answer—-Jonah concludes his column with an admonition,
Besides, we need all the help we can get, as Americans keep on gaining weight. At base, obesity is the fault of biology, which has programmed us to derive primal pleasure from food.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. This latest study also offers a modest suggestion for dieters: Because people quickly adapt to the pleasure of any single food, it’s important to seek pleasure from many sources. Variety really is the spice of life.
He may be half joking, but more, not less, food trucks and a greater variety of them may help with the over-eaters.
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March 6, 2012 | 4:39 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
KogiBBQ, Coolhaus, and Canter’s mobile food trucks are not a usual topic of interest to The Wide Angle blog. We don’t opine on which of the food trucks are better or more accessible or offer more variety—- that’s not our thing.
But a report in The Los Angeles Times over the weekend piqued our interest. The Times’ Sacramento correspondent reported that Assemblyman William Monning of Carmel has authored legislation (AB 1678) that will ban mobile food trucks from “sell[ing] or otherwise provid[ing] food or beverages within 1,500 feet of the property line of an elementary or secondary school campus from the hours of 6:00 AM and 6:00PM, inclusive on a day that school is in session.”
The predicate for this draconian bit of legislation is the author’s view that “mobile food vending diminishes participation in the school nutrition programs, reinforces the stigma associated with eating school meals, and jeopardizes the fiscal viability of school nutrition programs at the local level.”
In the press release published by his office, Monning facilely rationalizes his plan to limit the public’s access to food trucks,
mobile food vending poses a threat to student safety as well as student nutrition. Mobile vending near school campuses incentivizes students to leave school grounds, which increases students’ exposure to off-campus hazards such as heavily trafficked streets. Creating a buffer zone, free of mobile food vending around school campuses will decrease student’s access to unhealthful foods; help bolster school nutrition programs; and help protect the safety of students.
If Monning were a shill for the restaurant owners of California his arguments would make more sense than the rationale he proffers for the bill. Restaurant owners don’t like food trucks for obvious reasons—-the competition and their sudden popularity. If that were the “threat” that animates Monning’s legislation so be it.
But to argue, as he does, that today’s food trucks are a threat to “student safety and nutrition” is bizarre. The notion that the mere presence of food trucks within five blocks of a public school will cause students to leave school, expose them to dangerous traffic, diminish school nutrition programs and stigmatize school food programs is absurd. He assumes causal relationships that are arguable at best and then takes his assumptions to illogical conclusions.
It’s as if there were no McDonalds or convenience stores or drug stores or mini-marts or car washes with snacks in the world of 2012. Enter Hollywood High School in Google Maps and see how many fast food joints, convenience stores, and other sources of junk food there are within the 1,500 foot perimeter that Monning would ban food trucks from.
The bill also belies a notion of food trucks that is antiquated; as if they were the greasy spoon “roach coaches” of yesteryear. Monning writes that food trucks as offer “food and beverages that are calorie rich, nutrient poor, and contribute to negative health outcomes like being overweight and obesity.”
The most serious issue with Assembly Bill 1678 is really not its limitation on food trucks and its antiquated assumptions, troubling though they are. It’s the underlying mindset that the route to better nutrition and health for our citizenry is through limiting choices and regulating our lives as opposed to encouraging greater choices and more education.
The concept that there is a silver bullet emanating from Sacramento that will solve the problems of kids and traffic, kids and achievement, kids and poor food choices, and kids and obesity is nonsense. There are no quick fixes to any of those problems and the presence or absence of food trucks within five blocks of a school may be the least likely solution.
Hopefully, the legislature (and if not them, the governor) will think better of over-regulating one of the most creative and exciting new areas of cuisine in California by succumbing to a silly notion of how to help our kids.