The Snack Factor

Nacho Cheesier Doritos

Nacho Cheesier Doritos

Ezra Klein brings some useful social science to bear on the question of whether urging people to cook at home more would improve public health:

[Jamie] Oliver wants to change the way low-income communities approach meals. The problem is that the evidence suggests meals aren’t driving the rise in obesity — snacks are. A 2003 paper by economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro looked at an array of different ways to measure caloric intake, and found that most meals aren’t getting much bigger. Dinner, in fact, might be getting a bit smaller. The big increase in caloric intake actually came between meals. In 1977, Americans reported eating about 186 calories outside of mealtimes. By 1994, that had rocketed to 346 calories. It’s likely even higher now. That difference alone is enough to explain the changes in our national waistline. And it won’t go away if we begin cooking dinners but still are purchasing 20-ounce bottles of Coke at the office.

This actually suggests that cultivating cultural taboos against prepared food—which is part of the Oliver/Pollan argument for cooking—actually could improve public health significantly. It’s just that the mechanism wouldn’t be substituting home cooked dinner for Taco Bell, the mechanism would be that if you eliminated prepared food from your diet you would almost have to cut down on your snacking substantially since you’re not going to get up from your desk and whip up some spaghetti carbonara in the middle of the afternoon.

That said, tackling the real causal mechanism seems preferable. Maybe offices should keep bowls of grapes hanging around? Evidence indicates that you could modestly improve public health and raise a nice chunk of change with a soda tax. Presumably something similar would apply to taxing chips and candy and so forth. You could fund a grapes-promotion program with the money. Or, you know, a robust national network of free clinics at which people could receive basic health care treatment and nutritional advice.

I should add that I have nothing against people who love to cook trying to share their enthusiasm with the world. Personally cooking is something I like to do, and it’s not something I learned from my family, it’s something I picked up from NYT Magazine articles about how great cooking is. But public health is still a serious issue and people shouldn’t just assume that their hobbies hold the key to saving the world.