Obesity and Vending
In a news story that came out a few weeks ago, KSL.com’s Brooke Walker reported on a vending machine at the Discovery Gateway Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah. This vending machine is special, among other special vending machines we have talked about in the past, because all of the items inside of it are free, but once customers try to input their snack selection, the machine “yells” at them, telling them that their choices are unhealthy and should stay away from those unhealthy types of foods. Emily Refermat from VendingMarketWatch.com writes, “Where’s the research correlating the rate of obesity to how often someone indulges in a snack from a vending machine?” Kathy Lovitt of Carts Blanche LLC also comments on this story, writing, “Since when did a vending machine make you obese?” I also spoke with a vendor, and his opinion followed in the same vein as Refermat and Lovitt; he said that the vending machine is more of a scare tactic as opposed to a means of helping people make wise decisions. “It teaches kids that vending machines are evil,” he said.
This machine does not have support from people within the vending industry because it makes vending machines the scapegoat for obesity in the United States. There are many organizations in the US fighting against obesity and obesity-related diseases, but there is no consensus on what causes obesity, contrary to popular belief. The popular belief is the thermodynamic model, in which calories go into the body and used as fuel. If one consumes more fuel than one needs, that excess is stored as fat cells. However, this does not account for anomalies in poor countries and communities. For example, according to Gary Taubes, an investigative journalist and author of Why We Get Fat, in a 1971 survey in Czechoslovakia revealed that “10 percent of the men were obese and a third of the women.” The country at the time was very poor, and people did not have very much to eat. This type of obesity is referred to as a “form of malnutrition.” Taubes contends that obesity is caused by what we eat, not how much we eat. This is an important point because the vending machine in the museum does not teach children this point. It simply yells at them, tells them to make better choices, and leaves them to be afraid of vending machines. It is an ineffective scare tactic.
David Berreby, a science writer and author of the book Us and Them: The Science of Identity, in an article featured on Aeon Magazine, agrees with Taubes in the idea that the calories-in/calories-out model is not defensible, as in it is no longer a legitimate argument because the evidence behind it is not there or invalid:
Yet the scientists who study the biochemistry of fat and the epidemiologists who track weight trends are not nearly as unanimous as [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] makes out. In fact, many researchers believe that personal gluttony and laziness cannot be the entire explanation for humanity’s global weight gain. (Full article here)
Therefore, if the snacks in the vending machine are not causing our weight gain in America, then what is? Berreby goes on to write that as Americans have been getting fatter, so have mice, American marmosets, macaques, and chimpanzees, along with other animals. Their diets have not changed nor have their lifestyles, yet they are gaining weight. In the end, Berreby states that different types of food that people consume have different effects on a people’s bodies. There are other things that make us obese, such as stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, viruses, bacteria, and industrial chemicals. Even air conditioning has been linked to obesity. All factors considered, snacks and drinks from vending machines are not the only things that are contributing to our weight gain, and therefore, we should try to better understand the causes of obesity before becoming dogmatic about our ideas, which the Discovery Gateway Museum vending machine has expressed already.
Moving back to the vending machine in the museum, if it was meant to educate children on healthy eating and good dietary choices, it has completely failed. It takes the thermodynamic model and suggests children to eat other snacks instead. However, not all vending machines are the same, and there are many machines out there that offer healthier choices. Therefore, the enemy in all of this is not the vending machine, the Snickers Bar, nor the choices of the consumer; ignorant assumptions on why we get fat is what is working against educating people on making healthy choices. This scare tactic will be ineffective at educating children and only propagates a unproven assumption, and what’s more, it is hurting an industry that has nothing to do with obesity in America. Intelligent ways of educating today’s youth on healthy eating are what is necessary to give them a chance at a better, healthier future, but using vending machines as a means of passing blame for obesity is not the way to go.