Don't Clean That Plate
By Bryan Caplan
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 Your parents probably told you so, but they were a century out of date.