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Using human nature instead of junk food taxes to fight obesity

August 24, 2009 | 11:15 am

As reported on this blog, taxes on junk food are gaining ground as a tool to help Americans slim down, as well as to raise money to pay for a revamping of the healthcare system. And, as reported in Sunday’s paper, there’s lots of scientific evidence that taxes on soda, cookies, potato chips and other empty calories does little to encourage healthy eating.

So, what does work?

Cake A 2007 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers some intriguing ideas. It looked for lessons from the field of behavioral economics, which seeks to explain how psychological and emotional factors can influence economic decisions, such as what kinds of food to buy.

For instance, it is well known that people have little self-control when deciding what to eat. Perhaps they are too hungry to think rationally. Or perhaps, staring straight at a tempting dessert case, the desire for instant gratification swamps the inconvenient truth that eating a slice of cake will have long-term consequences for the waistline.

To get around this, researchers suggest that diners pre-order their meals as much as possible. Kids could order their school lunches in advance each month, and shoppers could select their groceries online at set intervals, thus eliminating the temptation to make a fattening impulse purchase they could come to regret later.

Behavioral economics has also established that default options are most valuable to people. That is, the price you’d have to be paid to part with something you already own is higher than the price you’re willing to pay to buy it in the first place.

This is how that plays out in the food realm: Let’s say that in Restaurant A, sandwiches come with a side of fries, but diners can substitute a green salad at no additional charge. In Restaurant B, the opposite is true – salads are the default, but there’s no cost for switching to fries. Since fries and salad cost the same in both restaurants, you’d expect the proportion of sandwiches served with salad to be the same in both places. But in fact, more salad will be served in Restaurant B, where salad is the default. That suggests that making healthy foods the default menu choices will translate into more healthful foods being eaten.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: This red velvet cheesecake will taste good now, but how will you burn off the calories later? Photo credit: Cheesecake Factory