This morning, I read something that made me laugh, cry, gasp, and startle the people sitting near me.”WHY?” I shouted, when I reached the end, pounding my fist on the table-top. “No! It can’t be!”
It wasn’t a book. It was the McDonald’s calorie listings.
It was like discovering that all my best friends were trying to kill me. Most of my best friends are McFlurries, so this was not inaccurate. “You lied!” I shouted at the M&M McFlurry. “You lied to me!”
A child seated nearby began to cry loudly into his Happy Meal.
“YOU IMPLIED BY YOUR GENERAL DEMEANOR THAT YOU COULD NOT POSSIBLY CONTAIN MORE CALORIES THAN A CHEESEBURGER!”
“So I didn’t lie,” the McFlurry murmured soothingly. “I – implied.”
I stormed out of the McDonald’s, overturning several tables, just in time to see that Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces had been upheld by the New York Health Board.
The food wars are on, all right.
Bans like Mayor Bloomberg’s make you want to cry into your 32-ounce soda that you can no longer have — at least in movie theaters, sports parks, and a few other venues, with a stiff fine for those business that do not comply.
And McDonald’s is now beginning to comply with the Affordable Care Act by listing the caloric content of all its menu items where we can see it.
They’re closing in.
Ignorance, it turns out, is bliss. Until a day or two ago I honestly thought that eating a McFlurry was a healthier, less fattening alternative to a Big Mac. I wish I were joking. In general, I had the sort of vague, shadowy idea that some things on the McDonald’s menu might not be overwhelmingly good for you, but that information was like the vague, shadowy idea that I might someday die, that the sun is only one of millions of millions of stars, or that the Mars rover is going to be left there to rust alone forever. It was information that had been given to me and I had chosen not to incorporate into my daily routine.
No one ever suggests that more knowledge is going to make you happier. “Hey, you like sausage?” no one says. “You should see how it gets made!”
But the one relief about McDonalds is that this information is unlikely to change much. Sure, some New Yorkers insist that the advent of calorie labels has altered their choices. But by and large, we have no idea how many calories to consume to maintain our current weights. “Uh,” we say. “Three thousand, right? That seems like a good, round number.”
“Eight, I thought.”
“Seven hundred ninety?”
As Sarah Kliff notes, no more than 15 percent of people in a recent survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation could actually estimate the number of calories they needed to eat to keep their present weight.
Keep in mind that as we sit here, 43 percent of America is trying to lose weight. It is not that we are not thinking about these things.
But perhaps Bloomberg will have more success.
Defaults matter. For once in the battle against obesity, inertia may help.
Healthy decisions are much easier to make in theory. Ah, theory, that lovely place where you do yoga daily, are always on time to things, and have not been borrowing your neighbor’s wireless internet for the past two years.
But in practice?
In practice, actually, good decisions can be tremendously influenced by the default settings. Ask anyone whose computer background is still that magnificently-lit green field beneath a blue sky, or the thousands of Americans whose password is “password.” Or look at the study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effect of default options on retirement savings – something everyone agrees is a good thing, but which we seem to have little idea of how to set up. Create an automatic enrollment system, where people must opt out of saving, and the desirable outcome occurs as if by magic. Set the default to opt-in, and many fewer people will sign up to save.
Yes, humans are intelligent and informed and capable of making our own choices, but we are also fundamentally lazy. That is why obesity has been such a big hit nationwide. The only thing we love more than eating is sitting. Require us to Put In Actual Effort in order to obtain More Food Than Is Healthy? That’s a real Sophie’s choice. Go back for a refill? Pay for two sodas? Leave New York City? That’s a lot of work. No wonder everyone is so optimistic about the potential of portion control to make a real difference.
What about our rights?
Anyone who thought Americans clung to our guns and religion should see us clinging to our donuts and sodas.
If there is one right we will defend, tooth and nail, it is the right to eat more food than is healthy or good for us. “I’ll decide what’s good for me!” we shout, through several layers of powdered sugar, sweating, as our arteries quietly give up the ghost. We won’t go down without a fight. Not that we’re able to fight very long, with our hearts the way they are.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? These days, we cannot pursue happiness very far before we start to pant and wheeze. We have to get delivery.