three vignettes on diet and personal and public pressure

So I listened to Vox’s The Weeds podcast on the relationship between public policy, public health, and eating yesterday. They are particularly interested in the use of nudges and nags to improve healthy eating and healthy outcomes. It made me think of a few things. There’s no grand point here, just some impressions.

1. Maybe two years ago, I was holed up in a coffee shop that I used to go to regularly, sweating through my dissertation prospectus. I was chatting with the owner’s son who was working the register. I had noticed that an awful lot of people came into the shop and just got Cokes — big, 24 ounce Cokes. He told me that there was a big contingent of people, as many as a couple dozen, that came in before work in the morning and then again during their lunch breaks, like clockwork, to buy 24 ounce Cokes. Some offices, he said, made soda runs three times a day. These weren’t big sales, obviously, but because soda is so cheap on their end, it was a nice, consistent profit for them. Day in, and day out. I immediately felt a sense of revulsion. That much soda, every day?

I then felt guilty for feeling revulsion. After all, there I was, sucking down probably my fourth coffee of the day, in typical grad student fashion. I had my own addiction, after all. And clearly, there is a class element to that feeling. Coffee has, in the past couple decades, become coded as a bourgie good, even though it’s such a widely-consumed beverage. From my perspective, coffee’s traded its cup-of-Joe-at-the-diner symbolism, in the public consciousness, for someone at a fancy coffee shop paying $4 for beans grown on some mountain somewhere. Soda, meanwhile, has become more and more seen as a public health scourge, and as eating well has become a more-and-more class-marked practice, soda seems to me to have taken on a lower-class element to me. So my feeling of revulsion strikes me as classist in a really objectionable way.

(It’s important to note that, despite what people sometimes assume, there’s no clear relationship between socioeconomic class and obesity.)

However: I couldn’t deny then, and can’t deny now, that drinking that much soda every day is probably terrible for you, and despite the endless back and forth about the effect of caffeine, drinking a lot of coffee probably isn’t. A coffee addiction is simply much healthier than a soda addiction, especially if, like me, you take your coffee without milk or sugar. And so as much as I distrust the motivations of my feeling of disgust at drinking that much soda, and as sure as I am that there is an ugly class element to that disgust, that disgust is good for me, and it would probably be better for other people if they felt similar internal emotional pressure to avoid soda.

2. There’s a McDonald’s on the walk home from my office on campus to my current apartment. This is a problem for me. After teaching and office hours and tutoring, I’m pretty tired, and the urge to just get dinner on the way home is powerful. McDonald’s has the virtue not only of being fast and (I admit) gross-but-delicious, it’s also cheap. Two dollar menu McDoubles will fill me up for the evening, whereas $20 worth of sushi leaves me hungry later on. So it’s tempting.

Luckily for my health, I usually avoid that temptation. I’m an active, mostly-fit adult. I’ve found that it’s been much easier as I’ve gotten older (I’m in my mid-30s now, eep) to keep exercising than it is to eat well. The goalposts seem to move all the time. What once seemed like a healthy diet to me now seems like slacking. Part of the trouble is the difficulty of eating well on campus, and of feeling like it’s not worth it to cook for myself when I live alone. But I am able to avoid that McDonald’s, with an exception maybe once or twice a month. Again, there’s an element of shame there: I actually feel, at this point, actively embarrassed to be walking into McDonald’s. Here again I’m troubled by the relationship between what’s healthy for me and the class dimensions of my aversion to this food. If you said to me that people should feel ashamed to walk into a McDonald’s, I’d tell you that there’s some really gross class connotations there. But I also can’t deny that the shame I feel is a more powerful disincentive to eating food that’s really bad for me, and I can’t deny that it would be healthier for other people, including poorer people, if they felt the same. It’s tricky.

The solution, it seems to me, has to be to use government proactively to provide real economic incentives to make it easier and cheaper for people to eat healthy food. This stuff should pay for itself, given the immense costs of obesity and attendant health problems. Of course, devising and implementing a workable system’s easier said than done.

3. There’s also a liquor store on my way home from campus. I have a family history of alcoholism, on both my mother and father’s side, and I feel lucky not to suffer from that affliction myself. I’ve never had any of the problems associated with heavy drinking. I don’t drive drunk and have never gotten a DUI. I don’t start fights or get aggressive with women when drinking. I don’t black out. I don’t lose control. And it’s very easy for me to go weeks without alcohol if I feel like I should lower my consumption, want to save money, or just don’t feel like drinking.

But that doesn’t mean that my relationship to alcohol is 100% healthy, either. See, it’s really easy for me to get into the habit of picking up a six pack of beer and drinking it every evening. I can do this without ever getting even tipsy; I just have a beer with dinner around 6 and drinking slowly and steadily until I go to bed around midnight. I never become drunk, and so in my mind, it’s never a problem. I really like beer; it’s relaxing and it tastes good and it’s nice to sip while I’m writing, grading, or researching. But beer has a lot of calories, and if I’m drinking a six pack of the kind of craft beers that I like, we’re talking anywhere between 600 and 900 calories in an evening! I wouldn’t eat a large McDonald’s fries after eating dinner, but by drinking a six pack in a leisurely evening, I’m doing worse, calories-wise. (I can’t be doing my liver any favors, either.)

So I’ve been careful not to fall into that habit again, which I developed while writing my dissertation. I’ve been much more aggressive about measuring the impact of beer on my overall diet since then. What’s interesting to me, though, and pretty unfair, is that my impression of the way we think about alcohol as a society is that its dangers come from the fact that it produces drunkeness, not from its calories and nutritional value. Yet the ambient shame of soda drinking depends on just that, while beer can be as bad or worse. During the fight over the Bloomberg-era big soda ban in New York City, some smart people pointed out that many of the soda ban’s supporters are the type who drink a bottle of red wine a night without thinking of it — and red wine’s worse for you than soda. I guess the point is just that, though shame and stigma have to play a role in how we get to more healthy diets and a more healthy society, we are very selective and inconsistent in how we apply such stigma, and when.

20 Comments

  1. There are certainly more calories in a bottle of red wine than in a similar .75 liter serving of regular soda, but the insulin response from drinking the soda would be way worse, and likely cause you to ingest more calories (and store those calories as fat more quickly and efficiently)

    Calorie conscious drinkers have resources, though! (http://getdrunknotfat.com/)

  2. The revulsion can also be from direct experience. Since I’m not used to drinking that much sugar water — and heaven help anybody who is, unless they’re biking 100 miles a week or something — even a single 12oz serving can leave me feeling squirmy. Or the two Big Macs that I ate to fill a hole before going grocery shopping that left me feeling self-violated, where good food just leaves me overfull.

    Speaking of livers, somebody I know was applying for health insurance and her liver tests came back hinky. She was told to lay off the sauce 100% for a month before retesting, and she realized that she’d been downing four glasses of wine a night. I’ve also heard of somebody with a 2-a-night cocktail habit who autopsied with a visibly troubled liver. I love me some booze but by god I feel it, which makes it blessedly self-limiting.

  3. I don’t know much about this subject save for the recent spat of books/documentaries that have come out on the subject (Forks over knives, omnivores dilemma, food inc. etc) so I apologize for any ignorance:

    At what point do we deem an activity or food ‘bad’ enough to vilify and use legislative pressure to dissuade it’s practice or consumption? I’m thinking of the progression of anti-fat hysteria of the 80s to the anti-carb hysteria in the 90s to the anti-everything not gluten-free-local of today.

    Omnivores dilemma by Michael Pollan gave some case studies of the high-fat and high-alcohol diets of the French (may be wrong on locale – bad memory) and related their longevity to lack of stress.

    Open culture had a bit on how sitting is as bad as smoking. http://www.openculture.com/2015/08/why-sitting-is-the-new-smoking-an-animated-explanation.html
    Do we legislate against how long we can sit at work (being an office worker I’d say yes!)?

    And how do you square a government program to prod people into healthy food choices while subsidies and pressure on corn growers exist to produce more corn, and with that cheap and unhealthy corn-based products?

    Maybe I’m digging in deeper than your article intended (and I’m totally ignoring your big point on class-based vilification which I agree with) but I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.

    1. The problem is that villifying certain food and drink is never going to be the solution. There will always be changes in fads, the science will always evolve, and the resulting policy (like what they did in New York) will always be teeming with ugly class and cultural hypocrisy.

      This isn’t to say the state can’t do anything but there are ways to improve health through positive reinforcement that avoid those pitfalls. It’s just a matter of making the investment which admittedly is harder than bans or sin taxes or other blunt instruments.

      1. Yea, i agree. I couldnt help but think when i read Freddie saying:

        “However: I couldn’t deny then, and can’t deny now, that drinking that much soda every day is probably terrible for you, and despite the endless back and forth about the effect of caffeine, drinking a lot of coffee probably isn’t”

        Probably terrible for you is an extremely weak basis to call for the use of government power, not that Freddie is here.

    2. But what about people like myself who have terrible feet (and no, $600 special shoes only work temporarily as your duck paddles “adjust”). No “standing desks” for me, thank you.

      My main point: health studies and “pressure” needs to be pretty much fine tuned.

  4. There’s a certain paternalism involved in this. Obviously the rich and powerful have their lives in order and don’t need us telling them what to eat or how much exercise to get, but any excuse to lecture the underprivileged is always welcome.

  5. The power of trends and the attitudes of the rich have such a powerful hold on us. It’s strange how easily we find ourselves parroting their attitudes. Noam Chomsky has remarked on the class angle with regard to smoking. For a long time smoking was seen as glamorous and something everyone indulged in, but then the rich stopped smoking and it became a disgusting habit. It’s often used these days as an example of the irresponsibility of the working class or poor. Still though, it’s undeniable that smoking and fast food are injurious to health.

    The dilemma you describe about revulsion, the relationship of policy and personal action, and what to do is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. It’s hard to put into words but I think there is a distinction to be made in regards to what you choose for yourself and what you suggest to others. As in, I believe a bit of discomfort, like say working out or disciplined living, is good for me and I ought to work harder on it, but that I would not be an asshole and require others to do so. I would judge my own failings harshly but try to be compassionate with others. For one, I don’t know their heart and secondly, it’s not really my place.

    And, of course, speaking to your article directly, as a short order cook myself seeking to escape that life, the last thing I want to do after a 12 hour shift is to cook another damn meal. Even if it’s for myself or others. ShItty food is just easier to deal with. And typically cheaper.

  6. I share your feelings of revulsion at habitual soda drinkers, and would feel as embarrassed walking through the doors of a fast food restaurant. However, I don’t think that there is a class element to my snobbery. I justify my feelings as a principled refusal to support corporations that exploit their workers, corrupt this country’s agricultural policy, and sell products that have been objectively proven not to be healthy in any portion.
    All that I do is try to live my moral convictions the best that I can.

    1. A bit off topic, but you might consider how much of your perception of corporations exploiting their workers is the same your perception of habitual soda drinkers; class snobbery.

    2. ‘I justify my feelings as a principled refusal to support corporations that exploit workers…’ I presume you do not own any Apple products, then.

  7. People equate virtue with abstention, forbearance, relinquishment. Hearing my liberal friends talk about their juice fasts and their cleanses and their month-of-no-processed-sugar plans sounds about as close as I can imagine to a secular humanist’s idea of lent.

    Sometimes it probably does provide some health benefit. But it always provides a dose of that virtuous feeling. And the reason I know about it at all is social media, which means that telling others must be part of the payoff.

  8. Leave it to you, Freddie to worry about the class implications of your diet.

    A couple of things you left out though:

    Profit margin on sodas is very high. When you buy a double cheeseburger and a Coke, McD’s makes far more on the Coke than on the cheeseburger.

    Read about low carb diets. Google Gary Taubes or Peter Attia as a start. Then, relax, stop at MaD’s on the way home from work, order a double cheeseburger with no sauce, throw out the bun and eat it.

  9. “And so as much as I distrust the motivations of my feeling of disgust at drinking that much soda, and as sure as I am that there is an ugly class element to that disgust, that disgust is good for me, and it would probably be better for other people if they felt similar internal emotional pressure to avoid soda.”

    This makes me a little uncomfortable. It sounds as if your trying to give yourself permission to feel that revulsion, if only it weren’t so intrinsically tied to class. As a working-class person, I’m hyper-aware of the stereotypes. I don’t drink soda (though I feel no real shame in stepping foot inside a McDonalds). Incentives are fine, but I do oppose laws that tax or ban unhealthy foods, not because they economically target poor people — which they do — but because it’s hard to ignore the message that “you people are so stupid you can’t even feed yourselves properly.” And coming from the other side, that’s what it feels like.

    Slightly OT, but I wrote something recently about poor and working-class people not taking advantage of mental health services. It’s not only that the resources aren’t there, it’s that many people lack the language of mental health. When middle-class people talk about class, the non-economic parts often get ignored.

  10. Freddie, correct me if I’m wrong, but as a perpetual grad student, isn’t your socioeconomic class basically “Broke as a Joke”? If these folks work in office jobs, I’d guess they’re a fair bit ahead of you in socioeconomic terms, yes? Maybe you’re thinking of your wealth of cultural capital, or your abundance of Twitter followers. I think this might be a bit of your East Coast snobbery filtering through your thought process. You’re in Indiana; I lived in Louisville for three years, and soda for breakfast was pretty common across all socioeconomic strata (Houston, where I moved next, even moreso).

    What I take away from this is that it must be emotionally exhausting to be a Man of the Left these days, what with all the privilege checking (is it a privilege to have the privilege to be checking your privilege all the time? I say “Yes”!). Imagine all that could be accomplished with the mental energy it takes you to get through a visit to the coffee shop.

    Alright, enough snark, sorry. In terms of your second vignette, exercise – if you truly commit to it – will eventually force you to abandon garbage food and soda. I grew up as a fat kid – Coca-Cola to this day is my absolute favorite substance on earth (Racer 5 IPA is giving it a run, though). At the beginning of my senior year in college, 40 lbs overweight, I started dating a marathon runner. She got me to start running, which led to triathlons, which led to mountain biking, then to surfing. Thirty years later, I’m in great shape, I exercise a couple of hours a day, every day. The upshot is I can’t really drink Cokes or eat McDonalds anymore. My body just won’t take it, I get ferociously ill – headaches, diarrhea, etc. But I don’t judge other people who love fast food and soda. It tastes great! Life is short and crappy, have some fun. I love beer, too. Craft beer is delicious! Enjoy it!

    I guess I just don’t see where you expect the “shame and stigma” aspects of leftist ideology that have grown so important to the Kool Kids to lead. I’m fairly certain you didn’t confront any of those soda-buying patrons with their abysmal life choices. You just kind of broadly shame and other them on the internet two years after the fact. Do you think they read you? Do you think they could possibly care what you think? Isn’t this just the same social signaling for which you’re always condemning others? Why is bullying wrong but shaming right? “Nudge” is just Cass Sunstein’s stupid, lefty euphemism for bullying some poor slob into “doing it my way”. It’s gentle fascism. Though I would like to “nudge” Matt Yglesias down a flight of stairs.

  11. I prefer a food culture of pleasure, good taste, and enjoyment to one of morality and medical health. Failing with respect to the former sort of standard doesn’t lead to shame and stigma- but merely to unhappiness.

  12. I drank a lot of coffee and now I have a pacemaker. My cardiologist says that Starbucks is creating an epidemic of arrhythmia.

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