No easy time: Only our waistlines are going up!

Friday’s news was filled with bad news. UNC-Chapel Hill will get budget reductions larger than any other schools in the N.C. system—18% permanent cuts. We don’t know what our School’s exact cut will be, and it will be a few weeks before we know. It won’t be good. As a non-native born North Carolinian, it makes me sick to think of diminishing this great university; 18% cuts could do that.

The New York Times ran a piece by David Brooks called The Unexamined Society. It’s really refreshing to see a writer who understands the importance and value of behavioral research, which Brooks says is in a golden age. He talks about failed policy changes in areas such as poverty, drug addiction and schools, and attributes some of those failures to simplistic views of human nature. Studies of incentives show that how defaults are set, e.g. to opt in or opt out of organ donation, can explain big differences in outcomes. Unfortunately, Congress proposes to eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, which funds some of the strongest research in those areas. Brooks recounts recent experiments that have resulted in better understanding of how people behave during scarcity. “Cutting off financing now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.”

I could not agree more. We desperately need research that can help us craft policies to prevent obesity in youth and more effective programs to help people lose weight and maintain their losses. Getting people to adhere to regimens recommended by their doctors, to take steps to prevent transmission of AIDS, and to keep using new water systems in developing countries, all are related to behavior. Behavioral research already has taught us a lot. Behavioral economics is a growing field with great promise. With advances in genetics and information giving social and behavioral scientists powerful new tools, it would be ridiculous to turn off this engine of knowledge, discovery and application.

The only growth area is our waistlines. New Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America publication, F as in Fat, confirms that we still are getting fatter. North Carolina is the 14th fattest state, a distinction we do not want. As we look ahead 10 years, we’ll be paying an even larger tab for the health care corollary of our obesity—more cancers, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and a lot more. It’s not a pretty picture. Last week, Kiyah Duffey and Barry Popkin gave us new insight into what is causing our weight gain and implicated more snacking, bigger portions, and more sugary drinks in their recent paper. We used to eat three meals a day; now, we just eat continuously. Kudos to The Herald Sun for the editorial on Strokes and Snack Foods.  As the editorial says, stay away from fried potato products, and eat more fruits and vegetables.

On that note, Happy Monday. Barbara

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