Friday, April 07, 2006

Fools Folly

Shame on Dr. John G. Sotos, a cardiologist whose Op/Ed "A Modest -- and Slimming! -- Proposal" appeared in today's Washington Post.

In it, he suggests we adopt a public policy for the food industry modeled on our current encironmental policy, better known as "Tradable Emission Allowances" that allow companies who pollute less to credit companies that pollute more. He thinks basing such a credit system on calories per ounce would solve our growing obesity problem.

A program for tradable emission allowances could target foods with a high caloric density, that is, foods with a high number of calories per ounce. These foods are more likely to produce weight gain than foods with a low density of calories. It's easier to eat 1,000 calories in dessert than in vegetables, because the calories in dessert are concentrated.A food's caloric density generally depends on its water and fat content. Dry, fatty foods have the highest caloric density, because water has weight but no calories and because fat has more calories per ounce than proteins and carbohydrates. For example, butter, which is fatty and dry, has 195 calories per ounce. Frozen spinach has seven calories per ounce.

A specific example illustrates how tradable emission allowances could work. Suppose the calorie-emission allowance is set to 100 calories for each ounce of food emitted into the environment (i.e., sold). A four-ounce food item having more than 400 calories could not, therefore, be sold unless "calorie credits" were purchased to cover the excess calories. So a standard four-ounce stick of butter, containing 780 calories, could not enter the marketplace until the butter producer acquired 380 additional calorie-credits from someone having credits to sell.

On the other hand, the producer of a four-ounce block of frozen spinach would emit only 28 calories into the environment and could sell the unused 372 calorie-credits to the butter producer.With such a program, high-density foods would become more expensive and low-density foods would become cheaper. Unlike a tax, the program could be designed so the net cost change to consumers was zero. Thus, consumers who alter their eating habits need pay no more to eat the same number of calories. The hope, which should be tested, is that the number of calories eaten would drop, owing to the difficulty of consuming large numbers of calories from low-density foods. This would then reduce food costs and, ultimately, health-care costs.

As a cardiologist, Dr. Soto should know it's not just about calories. While his idea is certainly novel, it fails at the very core of our nutrient requirements - actual micronutrients - vitamins, minerals, trace elements, amino acids, and fatty acids - in a food per ounce!

Some examples of foods that would fall under those with too many calories per ounce:
  • almonds, walnuts, peacans, sunflower seeds - basically all nuts and seeds
  • nut & seeds butters
  • natural cheese
  • any natural oil or fat, including those that are essential
  • fatty fish
  • some fruits, like avocados and coconut
  • poultry, like duck
  • natural sweeteners, like honey

The list is by no means inclusive of all the natural, whole foods that would fall into the "over 100 calories per ounce" folly. I don't know about you, but I see such a system as harmful to farmers and growers who are producing these very foods - foods that are healthy and good in our diet. While Dr. Soto may think he's on to something here - I think it's an unworkable idea that isn't going to make a dent in our eating habits or obesity epidemic.

What will work is for the American population to be told the truth about what the evidence tells us about diet, health and weight gain or loss; and provide them with usable tools - including a variety of dietary options that are scientifically supported - to get their weight down and improve their health.

The message "eat less and move more" doesn't work, isn't going to work and the evidence shows there are alternatives to the carbohydrate-rich, low-fat diet repeated day-in-day-out to the public, that work better, faster and with greater improvements in health risks!


  1. How about we do the credit system with junk food - that's where the obesity epidemic starts and grows from?

    Let's do it with all refined carbohydrates and make white bread less appealing to buy than 100% whole grain bread.

  2. Even assuming that calories alone are the cause of obesity, Dr. Sotos' 'fix' would not work. As he points out, watery foods have less calories than dry foods, and fats more than carbs. If I was a butter producer, I would just attach a gallon of water to a pound of butter and ,magicly, the high calorie dense butter becomes a low calorie dense butter with water item.