Is knowledge power?

This is a question that plagues the field of public health. Does giving people information actually have an effect? Does knowing that smoking causes lung cancer cause you to put out the cigarette? Does knowing that you could get HIV cause you to put on a condom? And, the most interesting question for me: does knowing how many calories are in the cookie determine whether or not you eat it?

This is a question that has been tested again and again with very mixed and ultimately not very compelling results either way. Sometimes nutrition information gets people to eat fewer calories; sometimes it doesn’t, whether in a laboratory setting or a real-world restaurant or cafeteria setting.

Part of the problem may be that information like calories and milligrams of sodium might not mean much to people who aren’t educated in basic nutrition. A more effective solution could be to label foods with traffic light colors, which would be way more relevant. But the criteria for the colors would be so subjective that policymakers might never agree, and I daresay the oh-so-powerful food industry would not be too happy about its products being labeled with a red sticker.

Menu labeling in chain restaurants will be law sometime soon as part of the Affordable Care Act, so I guess we’ll see how that works out. In my opinion, it’s something worth trying. At any rate, people have a right to know what the food industry has tried so hard to hide (namely, that that burrito you always order that you thought was 500 calories is actually 1000). But this type of information might be going at things from the wrong angle.

Providing nutrition information in foodservice establishments or on the fronts of food packages focuses on specific nutrients, which is, in my opinion, a symptom of the reductionism that plagues much of human health research and practice. I’m not saying that calories aren’t important; they certainly are, and I do want to know how many calories are in any packaged/processed foods I eat regularly. But it’s way more important for people to just learn to eat more whole foods and fewer highly processed foods–as I’ve been saying all along, if we all did this, we wouldn’t have to worry about calories or sodium or added fat or added sugar, especially if you eat more plants and fewer animal products.

I’m thinking it might be better use of money to create a national food and nutrition curriculum for schools so that kids can grow up learning about the food system, what’s healthy to eat, and how to cook for themselves. That kind of knowledge could be very powerful.

Do you think nutrition information would change the way you eat? Do you think education could stem obesity?


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