The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary December 15, 2006

The Right Stuff: Choosing My Own Diet

I love Stevenson dining hall. I absolutely love it. From the friendly employees who swipe my ID card as I enter the well-maintained dining rooms, Stevenson truly satisfies.

What makes Stevenson so great? Is it the bacon and eggs on Saturday morning? The cookies at lunchtime? The curly fries? I would argue that no one of these items alone can make Stevenson the success that it is. Rather, the dining experience is so agreeable precisely because there are so many options available to patrons at each meal. The bottom line is that I can choose my own diet at Stevenson, and I like it that way.

I suspect that the reader is sympathetic to this idea. You, too, I imagine, value the ability to choose what fills your plate at each meal. You can adhere to a healthy, balanced diet to whatever degree you wish. You can substitute a pile of cookies for an entire meal if you so desire. You can choose whether or not to consume meat and other animal products.

To what does this all amount? Quite simply, it amounts to freedom for each and every individual. But the reader might object: Is it not somewhat trivial to discuss the freedom to choose one’s diet? Isn’t everyone free to choose what sorts of food she will consume, and what sorts she will do without?

Not anymore. Not in New York City.

Less than two weeks ago, that city’s health board decided that New Yorkers had too many dietary options from which to select. In New York restaurants, then, it will soon (within less than a couple of years) be illegal to serve food containing trans fat, that much-demonized artery-clogger found in a wide variety of foodstuffs. What is going on here? This is the plan that was advocated by the city’s Republican mayor?!

I grant that trans fat is not the most salubrious ingredient to speak of. I am certainly no expert, but from what I can gather, it may even cause serious health problems: Clogged arteries, high blood pressure and all the rest. Fine. None of this succeeds, however, in justifying the state’s regulation of the individual’s diet. Indeed, I have yet to hear a sound case for such a gross intrusion.

Those sympathetic to the trans fat ban might suggest that health must come first. Trans fat is simply bad stuff, they might say, and individuals ought to be protected from it. But that is exactly my point: Do adult citizens really need the government to “protect” them from trans fat? Or cigarette smoke? Or alcohol? How about cheesecake and beer? If you consume too much of either of these products, you could die! Why doesn’t New York City ban cheesecake and beer, then?

Imagine a hypothetical state of affairs in which nutritionists reach a consensus that only animal meat (and definitely not tofu) can sustain the levels of various nutrients essential to the functioning of the human body. Should the state then step in and require a portion of meat products with every meal? Of course not. To do so would be ridiculous, for the same reason that New York’s trans fat ban is ridiculous: Whatever the health nuts or anybody else might say about a particular food product, some individuals might simply prefer to consume (or to do without) that product.

And it is none of the health board’s business whether you or I had too many cookies or too few veggies at lunch this afternoon.

I love Stevenson dining hall because it affords choice. There is nothing so gratifying as settling into my seat with a meal composed solely of the things that I have opted to eat. Thus I have a simple message for Michael Bloomberg, the New York health board and any Ohioans, Obies or feds who share the state-as-mommy delusion: Keep your hands off of my dining tray.


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