That was the question my girlfriend and I pondered the other day as we drove through New Jersey futilely trying to remove half of the cream cheese on our bagels without the aid of a knife.
Why is it that nearly every bagel that we buy has considerably more cream cheese than we want? Is it that people can somehow sense that we are from Philadelphia?
If some people prefer a little cream cheese and some people prefer a lot, doesn’t it make the most sense to provide a small amount of cream cheese unless someone speaks up and voices a preference for more? That way, everyone gets exactly what they want (and no more than they want). And people who don’t really have a strong impulse either way are saved from consuming needless extra calories.
A lot of recent discussion concerning combating the obesity epidemic has been around the ability of the government to ban particular unhealthy ingredients or products, like trans fats and salt. But perhaps we should be spending more time thinking about resetting food defaults, rather than on outright prohibitions, which tend to engender a strong backlash from certain sectors of the public
Already, there is a considerable amount of valuable research being conducted on how portion sizes and ingredient lists are set and how these elements impact our waistlines, but we need to think more about how we can use this data to accomplish meaningful policy prescriptions.
What if, in addition to a light spreading default, every bagel shop served light cream cheese unless you asked for the higher-fat / higher-calorie alternative?
What if all sodas currently referred to as “diet” were relabeled as “regular,’ and “regular” sodas became “high-calorie” sodas?
What if “lite” beer became “standard” beer, and everything else became “heavy” beer?
What if when you ordered a sandwich, the regular side was a salad and you had to ask to substitute in fries, rather than vice versa?
What if the default when you ordered a latte was skimmed milk and you had to specify if you wanted whole milk?
One of the great benefits of a “resetting defaults” strategy is that it is much harder for opponents to attack as “anti-freedom” or “paternalistic.” In each of the above examples, free choice would be completely preserved. All the existing food and beverage options would still be there. Every person would be at liberty to have fries and “heavy” beers at every meal. However, Americans would have to actively choose what they wanted to eat; they could no longer sit back and have the choice made for them. For those who elected to operate on autopilot, the result would be a far healthier diet.
Does such a “nudging towards health” proposal really have any negative impact on individual autonomy? Are food defaults frighteningly paternalistic? I don’t think so, but maybe all that cream cheese has gone to my head.
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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Situationism’s Improving Situation,” “Dr. David Kessler Waxes Situationist,” “The Situation of Eating – Part II,” “The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” “Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” and “The Situation of Repackaging.”
To access Adam Benforado’s article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America” (co-written with Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon), on the situationist causes of the American obesity epidemic, click here.