My main career goal is to help people suffering from obesity and type-2 diabetes. Personally, I’ve made a conscious decision over the past five years to avoid eating trans fats. So what do I think of New York city’s recent ban on trans fats, and the proposed statewide trans fat prohibition in Massachusetts, which is all but assured to pass unanimously? Read on. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
When it became apparent several years ago that trans fats are relatively nasty, health-wise, the news traveled quickly. Many consumers began buying butter instead of margarine, and scanning the labels on food to make sure it didn’t contain hydrogenated oils. Food producers realized that people were buying less of products made with trans fats. They reformulated their products to reduce or eliminate the sinister oils. They changed their labels to be sure that people knew ("Trans fat free, made with heart-healthy Omega-3’s!"). Even restaurants began to boast of trans fat-free offerings. This occurred as quickly as news that large amounts of trans fats are unhealthy began to emerge: a powerful demonstration of how consumer demand is the most powerful regulator of the marketplace. Now there are many more options available to consumers than there ever were before.
Trans fats didn’t disappear, of course. There are still products which contain trans fats on the market. Trans fats have their advantages. They extend the shelf-life of foods; they are relatively inexpensive to use; some people think that they taste good. Some people still consume them in large amounts, to be sure. But many health-conscious consumers have reduced their trans fat intake or eliminated the oils completely from their diets. If you are one of them, I congratulate you! I think you are not only taking steps to educate yourself about good nutrition, but also choosing to take good care of your body. I would encourage everyone to avoid eating trans fats.
Are you one who hasn’t heard much about trans fats? If so, I encourage you to find out more about them. Have you heard about trans fats and chosen to consume products containing them? If so, good for you — you are making an informed decision. Perhaps you eat a doughnut once a month, or a piece of cake with store-bought frosting on your birthday. Maybe you prefer buying foods that contain trans fats because they cost less money. Maybe you just prefer the taste and are not concerned about possible future detriments to your health. Or maybe you don’t believe that trans fats are bad for you.
There could be a myriad of reasons why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made. Who am I to try and use the government to force you not to eat certain foods? You’ve made a decision about what to put in your body, and I respect it. I would never tell you that you are too stupid to decide what to eat.
But that’s what New York City and Massachusetts want to do: tell you that you are too much of an idiot to decide what to put in your own body. Despite the recent trend in the food industry toward offering products with fewer or no trans fats in response to consumer demand, politicians have jumped in front of the anti-trans fat parade that was already marching steadily down Main Street.
What’s next, mandatory exercise? If some "obesity experts" and doctors had their way, we would be subsidizing fruits and vegetables and taxing cookies. They’ve already succeeded, in many venues, at gutting school vending machines of soda and candy and replacing them with yogurt and fruit juice (which, incidentally, are often loaded with just as much sugar as the treats they were intended to replace).
I think this is unrealistic. Just because candy is unavailable from a school vending machine doesn’t mean it’s unavailable. For example, I’ve heard tell of enterprising young students bringing "black market" candy into school and selling it at a profit to their friends! I think young people who are forming eating habits should learn how to make choices — that is, see a given food, think about whether or not they want to put it in their bodies, and decide to do so or not to do so. This is what happens in the real world, outside the realm of an elementary school; learning how to make the right choices for you when confronted with a cornucopia of foods each day is a skill that must be learned.
Of course, my hope is that students would choose to snack on vegetables or mixed nuts instead of popping M&M’s. I would tell them about the unpleasantness of diabetes and heart disease, and encourage them to make food choices that would sustain their energy throughout the day and their health throughout their lives. I understand that many of them would still choose soda over bottled water. But I also understand that I cannot force them to make the choices I hope that they would make.
We’ve seen just how well it works when we try to tell young people that they can’t drink alcohol, or people of all ages that they aren’t allowed to smoke marijuana. Whose brilliant idea was it to try telling a bunch of adults they aren’t allowed to eat doughnuts and cupcakes made with trans fats? I’m just curious how long it will take before a black market in trans fat laden goodies emerges on the streets of New York. I picture a plump man standing on the corner in a large trench coat, whispering to passers-by, "pssst, want to buy a doughnut? I got the good stuff…"
When will legislators learn that they have a fat chance of changing human behavior simply by writing down a law on a piece of paper?
Stephanie R. Murphy [send her mail] is an MD/PhD student living in New Hampshire. The baseball says, “Anything is possible in life.”