Bryan Caplan  

Don't Clean That Plate

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Economists have been joining the bandwagon against obesity. Part of me suspects that this is one of those problems that feels worse if people talk about it. The more people lament obesity, the more unaesthetically obese people I notice. Every time the media covers obesity, you can expect to see close-ups of unsightly folks in swimsuits. (I'm tempted to say "Out of sight, out of mind," but what I'm really thinking of is "Out of mind, out of sight").

Amidst a lot of vaguely totalitarian talk about regulating people's diets, it's striking that some entrenched social norms still encourage people to over-eat. How many times did your parents tell you to "Clean your plate"? Talk about the sunk cost fallacy. If you are overweight and aren't hungry, what kind of a person would encourage you to keep eating?

Well, maybe we pressure kids to solve a moral hazard problem. If you have to clean your plate, you won't take excess food next time. But frankly, I find it hard to believe that the value of the food you save is worth making your fat kid fatter.

In any case, the "clean your plate" ethos seems to affect the behavior of financially independent adults too. I've often been offered extra food from others' plates. "I'm not hungry anymore," they say. But when I decline their offer, they shrug and eat the surplus food themselves. Perhaps they were just being polite, but I suspect they feel guilty wasting food, and hurt their health, physical comfort, and appearance to appease their conscience.

Obviously, when people are poor and hungry, throwing out food is not smart. Even over-eating (stuffing your face when you feel full) can make sense if food spoils and you don't know where your next meal is coming from. The norms we have today used to make sense. But these days, they are worse than useless.

I propose an alternative norm for the food-rich era: Don't pressure overweight people to eat. Give the evil eye to busybodies who inveigh against "wasting food," not overweight people who put excess food down the garbage disposal. In fact, I'd go further. If you know someone wants to lose weight, stop offering them food. Let them eat when they are good and ready. Is this "impolite"? Your parents probably told you so, but they were a century out of date.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Mr. Creosote writes:

But what if the morsel of food is just wafer-thin?

jhc writes:

Leann L. Birch, out of Penn State, has a lot of interesting research on eating behaviors and such...you should check out her work if you are interested in this stuff.

user writes:

ROFL, Mr. Creosote

Paul N writes:

This post strikes me as sort of insulting to fat people.

I highly doubt that "cleaning your plate" is even a peripheral factor in the rise in American obesity.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I don't think Brian is being offensive, but maybe a tad, um, ignorant isn't the word, nor is clueless, maybe sheltered? That's not even it. Brian, you're just outside your range on this. Obesity isn't an economic problem. Nor is cleaning one's plate. If I didn't clean my plate before age 25 and then some, I'd have withered to nothing. If I don't watch portions and exercise regularly now at age 34, I'd blow up like a balloon. Regardless, I will always clean my plate and have seconds when served a home-cooked meal. It's too much work for the person making it to not enjoy it, regardless of cost of goods. Probably a lot more "expensive" relative to cost of goods these days. But home-cooked meals don't have to happen every night either.

I think the bigger problem is what groups of people do socially. Usually, free time away from work coincides with meal time. Going out to eat is an easy and progressively less expensive group social activity. At the same time, it's a progressively less healthy experience. Having people over to watch the game always involves high calorie stuff. Who wants a plate of celery and carrots and a glass of soy milk during a football game?

Jim Erlandson writes:

"Clean your plate." transfers blame for waste from the person who prepares too much to the person who refuses to eat too much.

Food supplies calories and nutrients as well as pleasure (that tastes good) and socialization (lets go get a bite to eat) but I've never seen anyone not on a diet do meal planning around calories. Quick! How many calories per week do you need to maintain your weight? How many calories did you buy at the grocery store last week? We eat because it looks good, it tastes good and we enjoy the social event. And we keep eating until we're uncomfortable. Sometimes longer.

Unless we're trying to attract a mate. Then another basic need takes over.

Randy writes:

What interests me is the idea that I'm supposed to care about fat people. Why? Who says? It seems to me that the real problem is the people who say I have to care. The people who take my money to force me to care. It ain't rocket science - the cure for obesity is to walk a few miles every day. Why do these people think that people who refuse to walk are entitled to my money?

Another Brian writes:

I find Brad Hutchings' comment shockingly ignorant: eating is one of the classic economic problems because it is so intertwined with both scarcity and distribution. (Not everyone would agree that distribution is an economic problem, but it is well studied within the discipline.)

(1) Many Americans grew up being told that they must clean their plate because "there are kids starving in Africa".

(2) Other Americans were forced, or subtly persuaded, to clean their plates because of the effort involved in cooking.

(3) Having grown up on the portly side and being only 25, I can definitely tell you that even during my childhood I was both encouraged to eat up because I was "a growing boy" and then roundly condemned for overeating and not exercising enough. Often by the very same people.

(4) Now that I'm an adult, I sometimes feel that I am viewed in a negative light if I do not finish the platter of food I've been served at a restaurant. The same standard does not apply to my wife.

The social incentives involved in eating are dysfunctional.

Lancelot Finn writes:

Hilarious post, Bryan. Really put a smile on my face. :)

Mr. Econotarian writes:

As my wife can't eat solid food, liquid fats, or alcohol without becoming very sick, we have become sensitized to the use of food and drink as a socialization factor. Everywhere she goes, people ask her "don't you want to eat?" Of course she wants to eat! We all want to eat! It just makes some of us fat and some of us sick.

This social norm to eat socially includes the work setting as well. "Fortunately" she has a horrific gastrointestinal problem to reply with, but pitty the poor person just trying to lose weight and trying not to get food shoved down their throat!

BTW, I've found an easy way to lose weight: have no food in your house. It cuts down on snacking.

Andrew Wise writes:

My understanding of the whole "clean you plate" social convention is that it originated in Britain after WWI when there were severe rations. It obviously has transferred to the U.S. There's one problem with the transfer, however: it left the second part behind. The original saying was, "Clean your plate, but don't take more than you can eat." It actually was a call for self-restraint, not a requirement to gorge.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Overweight but not Obese--I fit that catagory of healthier people. The Family is the greatest cause of Overeating, but not for the usual reasons described. The necessity of planning Meals for dependents require a forced eating pattern. I live alone now, and eat only two light meals per day, but still stay overweight. Go figure. lgl

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