Calorie Wars

Essentially, we all know that Americans have a large health problem in terms of obesity and related disorders (e.g., diabetes, heart disease). Here is some interesting information about the best way to help persuade Americans to trim down!

Health professionals argue about the best way to get Americans to eat healthier and avoid junk foods. Some have suggested applying a tax (similar to the cigarette tax) on unhealthy foods (e.g., non-diet soda, chips, candy, cookies). Others feel subsidies on healthy foods is the better way. Dr. Leonard Epstein, a clinical psychologist in Buffalo, New York, wanted to investigate which would have a stronger impact on buyers’ choices, so his research team created a simulated grocery store that used images of foods to represent healthy and unhealthy foods you would find in a real grocery store. Participants were mothers in the area, and were given a set amount of lab dollars. Each mother was asked to come in and buy a week’s worth of groceries for her family by choosing the images and using the lab dollars. At this time, the prices were the same as in stores (prices had no extra taxes or subsidies). After their choices were assessed, participants were placed in either the Tax Group or the Subsidies Group. Researchers either raised the prices of unhealthy foods by 12.5 % (Tax 1), and then by 25% (Tax 2); or they discounted the price of healthy foods comparably. Again they watched what the mothers purchased.

In order to classify foods as healthy or unhealthy, Epstein and colleagues used an index called calorie-for-nutrition value (CFN). CFN is essentially the number of calories you would have to eat of that food in order to gain any nutritional value from that food. An example given was for nonfat cottage cheese, which has a very low CFN because it is packed with nutrition but not with calories. However, chocolate chip cookies have a much higher CFN. Researchers also kept track of the number of calories per serving in every food.

Basically, participants bought less junk food when taxes were imposed (both Tax 1 and Tax 2) than when subsidies were used. When unhealthy foods were taxed, participants reduced their overall calorie intake, cut the proportion of fat and carbs, and increased the proportion of protein in their typical week’s groceries. Subsidizing the prices of healthy foods led to an increases in overall calorie consumption and no changes in the nutritional value at all. Results indicated that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and vegetables and treated the family to some chips and soda pop, which would be counterproductive to the goals of the subsidies. Essentially, the “sin tax” wins again!

I attempted to attach the full article (published in Psychological Science this month), so I’m hoping you can access that if you have want!

-posted by Mariah

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  1. This is interesting. I wonder what the long-term effects of this sort of system would be. In terms of classic or operant conditioning, punishment (in this case increased price of junk food) is usually not as strong for long-term behavior change as is reinforcement (in this case buying healthy food). Would people eventually adapt to the punishment of increased prices for junk food?

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