The answer to obesity among the poor: double the food stamp program

I do wonder sometimes, I really do. Certain activists, here it\’s Mark Bittman, really do seem to have their heads up their arses.

But the reality is that some billions of SNAP dollars (exact figures are unavailable, but the number most experts use is four) are being spent on soda, which is strictly speaking not food, and certainly not a nutritious substance, and is a leading cause of obesity. Seven percent of our calories come from sugar-sweetened beverages, none of them doing any of us any good.

Sigh.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Each one is equally as nutritious as another.

It\’s entirely true that mere calories do not a healthy and balanced diet make. But the calorie you get from a soda pop is just the same as the one you get from a turnip. Anyone claiming different is simply lying.

But that\’s not all folks!

Simultaneously, make it easier to buy real food; several cities, including New York, have programs that double the value of food stamps when used for purchases at farmers markets. The next step is to similarly increase the spending power of food stamps when they’re used to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets – indeed, everywhere people buy food.

SNAP (ie, food stamps) currently costs $80 billion a year. This bright spark\’s idea to beat obesity among the poor is to double the size of the program. Double the budget the poor have available to spend on food.

Doesn\’t make sense, does it? Especially when you consider that legumes and veggies and grains are actually cheaper than the junk food they shouldn\’t apparently be buying.

31 thoughts on “The answer to obesity among the poor: double the food stamp program”

  1. “Especially when you consider that legumes and veggies and grains are actually cheaper than the junk food they shouldn’t apparently be buying.” But there are people who hold the quasi-religious belief that that ain’t true, and moreover that where the poor live is always a food desert, where no veggie is on sale.

    Talking of idiots with quasi-religious beliefs, have you seen this by Mumsbott?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/26/my-inner-anarchist-lost-out-bourgeois

  2. Actually there is some sense to it, although it’s still a stupid idea for other reasons. It’s cheaper to eat junk than to eat healthy, if you’re not a vegetarian or a home-cooker. For instance fatty minced “beef” is cheaper than lean steak mince. Pizza around here is astonishingly cheap, I can get a Dominos for $2.95 at times ($5.95 is more usual). Good gourmet pizza has less calories, more nutrition and $20 more on the price tag.

    The money may be better spent on cooking lessons and kitchen equipment subsidies but given the revealed preferences of people’s eating habits, a healthy diet is more expensive than a calorie-laden one.

  3. The romantic-puritan-nutters have done a rather clever propaganda swerve on this, as we see above as well in Matthew L’s comment. That is, to convince people that “calories” are separate from “nutrition” and indeed that the two are in opposition (like freedom vs security, another example). So, the more “calories” you have, the less “nutrition” you are getting, and vice versa.

    One of the primary sources of this is a long running vegan-puritan group in (where else?) the USA called, in one of the most dishonest examples of labelling ever, The Centre for Science In The Public Interest, who are run by a food puritan called Michael F. Jacobson. ‘Twas they who invented the meaningless but meaningful sounding term “empty calorie”, among other useless additions to the lexicon.

  4. “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie”: Not exactly. There is considerable evidence that diets high in fructose (which means soft drinks and many manufactured food products) make a person fatter than a similar number of calories from a zero fructose diet. Fructose is digested and absorbed by the body in a totally different manner than glucose. Fructose has to go through the liver (rather like alcohol does) whereas glucose goes direct to the muscles. The rise in Western obesity can be measured by the rise in the consumption of soft drinks containing lots of sugar.

    Tim adds: I’m afraid this doesn’t make any sense.

    Let us assume that fructose is the problem (although, as dearime mentions, that would mean we should swear off fruit).

    OK, we see the same obesity problems on both sides of the Atlantic. Brits are just as porky as USians.

    However, USian soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and UK ones with good ole sugar. We cannot therefore blame the UK obesity on fructose. And that we’ve got the same obesity problem also tells us that we’re unlikely to be correct in blaming the US obesity on fructose……

  5. What is a health diet anyway. The Inuit have one diet. The Japanese another. French a different one. Middle eastern people eat unusual food compared to Russians. All of them are health as the people eating them live a long time. But according to the “diet doctors” they are all unhealthy. English eating an Inuit diet are supposed to die early. But why do the Inuit not die early? That’s because there is no such thing as a healthy diet. There is only food. High calorie for active people, lower for inactive. And just eating seasonal food gives enough variety to ensure enough vitamins etc. But even then not compulsory as some people can survive for years on just pizza (or some other weird food).

  6. Ian: Rest assured, I’m not saying that nutrition and calories are diametrically opposed. A lovely fresh salad drenched in an oil-based dressing is both nutritious and calorie laden (and very tasty). A head of lettuce is very low in both nutrition and calories. In the case of the pizza, the gourmet ones are genuinely higher in nutrition and lower in calories.

  7. “Tim adds: …

    However, USian soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and UK ones with good ole sugar. We cannot therefore blame the UK obesity on fructose. ”

    This logic doesn’t really hold. “good ole sugar” is sucrose, which is just a glucose molecule attached to a fructose molecule by a weak molecular bridge that is destroyed in your stomach – so it’s effectively 50% fructose, 50% glucose. “High fructose corn syrup” is used mainly in two blends, one 40% fructose and 60% glucose, and the other 55%, 45%. So to a good approx sucrose and HFCS are the same thing. But not quite: fructose is a good deal sweeter on its own than when it’s bridged, so to achieve the same taste of sweetness you use less HFCS than you use sucrose. Hence fewer calories. Unless there’s some subtle molecular business involving HFCS that nobody has yet discerned, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that anti-HFCS beliefs are just another of the daft quasi-religious faiths with which our age is so well supplied. I hesitate to suggest that it would be better to believe in older religious yarns (such as the fantasy that Peter went to Rome and became its bishop) but it is conceivably so.

  8. Matthew-

    You still think that calories and “nutrition” are different things though, don’t you?

    Not exactly. I personally define nutrition as anything you eat that prevents a disease of deficiency – vitamin C prevents scurvy, for instance. In that sense food energy is a nutrient because it prevents malnutrition. But in a practical sense, “nutrient” excludes food energy because that is important enough to deserve a category to itself.

    I realise that the diet industry, fun-hating puritans and chartreuse tinted luddites define “nutritious” as “we like it” and “unhealthy” as “we don’t like it”, but they can go suck on a mung bean.

  9. A quote form a Reuters article:

    “Gains in life expectancy contrast with Americans’ unhealthy behaviors, which have led to a 28 percent adult obesity rate, a diabetes rate of nearly 10 percent and a high blood pressure rate of more than 30 percent, according to United Health Foundation’s 2012 America’s Health Rankings. All three conditions are considered risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Since 1990, premature deaths have declined by 18 percent, cardiovascular deaths have fallen 35 percent, and cancer deaths have slipped by 8 percent, the report said.”

    Ok, I know that there are other factors involved such as defining down obesity and hypertension, (I don’t know enough about Diabetes II to work out if that’s been defined down as well), but the contrast is interesting.

    And I recall a link at Insty’s reporting a Chinese study that suggested obesity was caused by a bacterium, (at least in experimental rats).

    (The link from Insty’s is to the FT which wants registration so I’ve only read the quote.)

  10. Yes, Diabetes II has been defined down.

    They bastards have, as usual, slipped in “risk factor” to imply that it’s a proven cause of a disease, whereas it’s just a positive correlate which may, or may not, be a cause.

    “Since 1990, … cardiovascular deaths have fallen 35 percent”: what you need to know is that from 1920 to about 1960 such deaths rose steeply for no known reason, peaked, and have since come down steeply for no known reason (not that it stops medics from claiming credit for the latter while accepting no blame for the former). It’s a mystery.

  11. @TW: as others have pointed out ordinary sugar (sucrose) is just one glucose molecule loosely attached to one fructose molecule. The first thing the body does is split them apart. So soft drinks in the UK (which are increasingly made using HFCS – often labelled glucose-fructose syrup) have large amounts of fructose in too. Plus most manufactured products nowadays (including all those yummy fruit drinks for kids Ian B) have large amounts of added sugar. And many products have reduced fat (cos as we all know saturated fat is killing us all, but despite reducing our fat intake we keep getting fatter) but added sugar to make them taste nicer.

    It is the modern medical obsession with high carb, low saturated fat diets, coupled to an increasing sugar consumption, that is making us all fat. Well not me, as I cut out as much complex carbs as I can , eat butter, cheese and red meat like its going out of fashion, and maintain a slim figure. But the rest of the population anyway.

    If anyone is interested in the science behind it all watch this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

    Its long but worth the watch I think. I showed it to my old family doctor, he endorsed it to the extent that he cut out sugar from his diet immediately.

  12. I love pointing out the energy content of diet yoghurt versus the full fat kind. The look of dismay on the face of the poor dieter is a joy to behold.

  13. “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Each one is equally as nutritious as another.”

    That assumes that the body treats all calories the same. Your mouth and stomach (and digestive system, blood-sugar levels, and so-on) are pretty good natural calorie counters, but they appear to be fooled by calorific drinks – beer, juice, fizzy pop, and so-on. It’s usual, although far from ubiquitous, that obese people eat the ‘right’ amount and the excess calories in their diet responsible for their obesity come solely/predominantly from drinks.

  14. That assumes that the body treats all calories the same.

    It does. You’re talking about satiety, which is a different kettle of deep-fried fish. Some people have a broken satiety sensation, and they’re pretty much doomed to obesity unless they use artificial means (calorie counting etc). Some people deal correctly with some foods but not others, they include the ones you’re talking about that can’t correctly handle calorific drinks. And some people respond perfectly to everything they ingest, and can be heard moaning “But I never put on any weight no matter what I eerkgh” as a pear-shaped woman strangles them.

  15. Some people have a broken satiety sensation,

    It may be that humans have a wide variety of natural body weights due to genetic diversity, whereas society has a pretty much consensus opinion of what looks nice (and which is currently less body weight than historically, too.)

    So, not so much broken as diverse.

    The problem really is, nobody really knows. Science is very rudimentary in understanding how many of the body’s systems work. That’s an environment in which lots of theories, some of which might be quite sensible but most of which are probably crazy, can flourish.

    The current focussing on particular foods looks to me suspiciously crankish in a heuristic sense. Crankeries have a certain smell to them, part of which is enthusiastic declarations of causation from weak correlations.

    My own view is that our current belief that we live in some kind or rational, enlightenment society is an illusion, or a conceit. Many of the things we believe will in future be considered utterly loopy and rather primitive. From the perspective of future historians, I think, the Middle Ages isn’t over yet. We are still mired- including much of the sciences- in mysticism (with a particularly apocalypticist flava at the moment).

    As you say, all we really know is that the only sure way to get thin is to starve, which humans have known for many thousands of years. Everything else seems to be little better than throwing darts at the dartboard of hypotheses, blindfold.

  16. Every time I read these articles about people on low incomes being at greater risk of obesity, it triggers a little warning buzzer in my head.

    If there is indeed a statistically significant correlation between poverty and obesity, that does not necessarily prove that the former is the cause of the latter. Surely we should be open minded enough to ask whether the personality attributes that generally lead towards obesity, also tend to lead towards poverty? Laziness, self indulgence, absence of any sense of self discipline, all tend to lead to negative outcomes in the medium to long term.

    I suspect that the likes of Bittman are haunted by the spectre of this concept. So determined are they to stamp out any risk of the public cottoning on to the importance of personal responsibility, that they spend all their time identifying external factors which must be stamped out, to save us all, for we are all equally at risk from the perils of chips and cake. There must be no judgementalism.

    It looks like good old fashioned dishonesty, in the service of a political falsehood, to me.

  17. True, Monty.
    Show me someone obese and I’ll show you someone with an unbalanced diet.
    How people eat is also important. Sitting round a table, for example, rather than strolling through the mall.

  18. Don’t worry Monty. It actually is all about morals. That’s the whole point of this thing. The lower classes are morally incontinent (todays deadly sin: gluttony) so need the better classes to tell them how to live, what to eat, that kind of thing. Nobody’s scared of talking about that. It’s the whole point of the Obesity Panic.

  19. John Malpas
    1933. Wasn’t that the year Mrs Simpson got together with the Prince of Wales? You couldn’t have got much thinner than her.

  20. Just a quick point about about glucose/Fructose and how its dealt with.

    The essential point is that glucose intake is regulated by insulin. It is insulin that tells you to stop taking in too much sugar and people have to force themselves to overcome this natural defence against taking on too much sugar.

    Fructose on the other hand is seen in the food industry as “good sugar” because it bypasses the pancreas, does not require insulin and is therefore not a danger to diabetics. HOWEVER because fructose is ignored by insulin there is therefore nothing to prevent a person ingesting excessive amounts of high-calorific sugar.

    Which is what makes you fat.

  21. It seems to me that the appropriate solution is to pay SNAP benefits in cash, and abolish the agricultural subsidies that make HFCS stupidly cheap.

    Meanwhile, from the point of view of making you feel full, all calories are very much not the same.

    Tim adds: AND shut down the import barriers, quotas and taxes that keep sugar itself absurdly expensive.

  22. The next step is to similarly increase the spending power of food stamps when they’re used to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets

    And of course no one will sell the stamps at a discount to get cash to buy what they really want. I don’t know if it happens already, but increasing their value for even some items makes it more likely.

    The market (black or not) will always determine the value of any currency. Trying to fix prices (which is in effect what they are talking about) is a fool’s errand.

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