Nanny state or helpful hand?

A customer unwraps a double quarterpounder with cheese, a super fries and a super coke at a McDonald's restaurant . The director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services believes that there should be financial consequences for buying and consuming junk food.

So, should the government be in the business of telling people what they can and can't eat? And -- nanny state alert! -- is it even possible to legislate healthy behavior? Let's turn to Dr. David Asch. He's executive director of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and a physician at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

"I think people want to believe that when they go to McDonald's and order a Big Mac, a 32 oz. soft drink -- they're doing that because of their own choices," Dr. Asch said. "And everyone likes the idea of giving people those choices. At the same time, people don't actually want to get fat and may have some recognition that the very liberties that they enjoy when they go to McDonald's sometimes don't lead to the very choices that they would've rather had made with a longer-term perspective."

While he is wary of heavy-handed legislation controlling Americans' food intake, Asch said he thinks NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed soda ban is at best "soft paternalism," not an action from a nanny state.

"I think a gentle nudge, an encouraging approach to help people get to the goals that they actually want for themselves, but could use a little help," he told interim Money host David Lazarus.

He pointed out American attitudes about cigarettes and how they've evolved. As more information came out about the harmful effects of cigarettes -- long term and otherwise -- many Americans developed a negative attitude about smoking. Asch thinks that a similar change can happen with Americans and their perspectives on junk food.

Learn more about Dr. Asch's thoughts on eating, psychology and the government's role in what we eat.

PS: At least a few audience members may have something to say about where personal responsibility ends and government intervention begins. Bring it on. Let us know what you think.

About the author

David Lazarus is an American business and consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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