Jewish Journal


March 8, 2012

Waking Up to Sacramento’s Silliness



Don Chow Tacos food truck. Photo by Wikipedia/Makenachiemi

Readers of this blog know that on Tuesday we wrote of the silliness of a Sacramento bill (AB 1678) that would ban food trucks from within 1,500 feet of any public school in California. 

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.

He writes, 

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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