15 January 2007

Fad diets; fad policymaking

The Director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders explains the miracle formula used by diet books to become bestsellers for over a century now: "easy, rapid weight loss; the opportunity to eat your favorite foods and some scientific 'breakthrough' that usually doesn't exist." As one weight loss expert notes, "Rapid water loss is the $33-billion diet gimmick." Source
Having recently become curious about the Atkins diet, I am struck by the parallels between diet and policy. Both of them are vital, but we choose them in the same utterly careless way.

First, there is the emphasis on one single narrow measurable indicator – one that is inappropriate, but highly visible. In the Atkins world, it’s weight, rather than something more meaningful like overall health or life-span. In the world of policy it can be something like anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, rather than climate stability; or spending on police forces or education, rather than the crime rate or literacy rates.

Second, there is the apparent short-term success – often enough to ensure that the diet or policy sells well to a population with an ever-shorter attention span. Following the Atkins diet does bring about initial weight loss, but it’s loss of water:

The rapid loss of initial water weight seen particularly on low carb diets has an additional sales benefit. By the time people gain back the weight, they may have already told all their friends to buy the book, and the cycle continues. This has been used to explain why low carb diets have been such "cash cows" for publishers over the last 140 years. Source
Most policies have their equivalent of water loss; the short-term payoff from reacting to an immediate problem. But as with Atkins, there’s very little scientific analysis of whether the regimen is successful in the long term.

[G]overnment bureaucracies non-self-evaluate. At a minimum, agencies with evaluative responsibilities are not invited to evaluate - they are kept out of the loop, their opinions unsought. At a maximum, government agencies actively suppress their own internal evaluative units and are discouraged from evaluating the beliefs and policies of other agencies. Steven van Evera, Why states believe foolish ideas
Lastly there is the emphasis on presentation over substance. Millions of Atkins’ books have been sold; the late Dr Atkins died a very wealthy man and the Atkins corporation was once estimated to be worth billions of dollars (Fortune 17 May 2004). Yet, as my source shows, the diet even in its own terms is a failure. It doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss; as well it creates serious health risks, and has been recommended by no credible scientific body. Dr Atkins wrote no peer-reviewed articles; his books, it appears, cite only anecdotal evidence of the diet’s success. But under the barrage of daily (mis)information that we all face, presentation is everything; substance nothing. As in the world of fad diets, so in policy. This from Monday’s [UK] Times:

The [British] Government has been forced to admit that three years after promising to rebuild 3,500 secondary schools not a single project has been completed.

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