Stuff to read

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A little fat philosophy on a Saturday morning

I was working my university's booth at the State Fair this Saturday. The booth faced the entrance so it was great for people watching. As I casually watched people/families come in, I noticed a couple of interesting things. First, most people were overweight/obese. Maybe 20% weren't. And of those who were overweight, about half looked like they had BMIs of over 40.

I had the Fair brochure that listed all the food booths available, and out of about 50 choices, only two were reasonably healthy (kebabs and fajitas). The rest were full of sugar/fat and/or fried. I thought--"look how ingrained unhealthy food choices are in our culture--people couldn't make a healthy choice here even if they wanted to". I then thought about all the fast food and restaurants in town, and even our own university cafeteria--and the situation is just about the same. The State Fair was a mirror of larger life.

The reason that the unhealthy food is so successful is that cheap ingredients are high sugar/fat/carb so it's a great profit-maker for food businesses. Therefore they promote these items heavily; people respond to the advertising, eat the food, and get addicted to the fat/carbs/sugar, and eat more or at least regularly, driving the profit machine. Because they are addicted to this unhealthy food, economically they create a demand in business and a habit in themselves. Most of what is available for us to eat is no longer nutritious food. We get fat; business owners get rich.

Our children learn to like the first foods they are exposed to that hit the magic nerve centers of sugar/carb/fat. They create a larger demand, and they pressure their parents into buying them unhealthy food. Our schools serve pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs to our children for lunch. It's cheaper for the school that way, and once it is available to the students, they get addicted and demand is created.

I think we as a culture could learn something very valuable from French food culture. American culture emphasizes portions. When talking about restaurants, Americans say things like "It's really good, they have huge portions" as if the amount of food is more important than the quality or taste of the food. In France the opposite is true. They grow their vegetables for taste rather than size. We breed huge tasteless commercial tomatoes, beans, everything with size, color, and shippability in mind. We are concerned with everything BUT taste. No wonder the kids don't want to eat their vegetables. Their vegetables are tasteless!

French schools don't serve junk food. They serve real food, a great variety, with plenty of vegetables cooked in interesting ways (not canned, not boiled, not tasteless). Kids are the opposite of picky because the culture encourages them to try a little of everything. And a "little" is key. The French are satisfied with far smaller portions, and emphasize taste over amount of food. This difference in the food culture is the reason that they, as a nation, eat extremely well, don't deprive themselves, but have lower obesity rates and a longer life span than we do. They revere food. We scarcely care about food as long as it's warm, comforting, and there's a lot of it. This is fundamentally unhealthy and leads to obesity.

We have to fix our food culture. It can only be done though the media and through education. We are treating the symptoms of our food culture with Photoshop, Jenny Craig and other useless diets that don't work, WLS, and eating disorders. We need to treat the cause, and that is junk food in our schools, fast food culture, and the commercial food producing practices that value color, size, and shippability over taste and nutrition. It requires a shift in culture and a shift in the way the food business operates. "Super-size it", cries the billboard and we say yes to double the fat and calories.

Having McDonald's offer a salad does not change the fact that that most of what they are selling is high-fat psuedo-food. Why are they selling it? Because people think they like it, creating demand. Why do consumers think they like Big Macs? Because they don't have better tasting healthful alternatives in reasonable portion sizes. Because they've been raised on high fat/carb/sugar food in large portions. Portions=comfort. If taste were comfort, we wouldn't have this problem.

So back to the State Fair: what I saw there was a slice of American food culture in microcosm. And I pictured what could be done about it. 50 stands of food that was healthy and delicious. Rich food in MODERATION. Smaller portions. But that would be expensive! To businesses and to consumers! Why yes, it would, but can we put a price on good health, a longer life span, and less disease? As a society, would this cost outweigh diabetes, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure medication and doctor visits? Would it outweigh lost workplace productivity due to premature heart attacks, strokes, and other obesity-related illness?

Maybe good health is expensive. Maybe if the demand was large enough for healthy items, the price would go down as food producers and retailers started to realize economies of scale--that's basic laws of economics.

WLS is a sad reminder that our culture is sick, and as a society we have chosen to stigmatize those affected by our sick food culture, and American culture is so sick that the only option for many is WLS. Instead of fixing individual victims of the food culture, we should fix the food culture itself.

So that's what my day at the State Fair made me think of. Comments/discussion encouraged!


  1. LOVE this post! You are a great writer, but I'm sure you are well aware of that fact! I look forward to reading more. I found you on the VSG forum :)

  2. Aw, thanks! I'm a sociologist by trade, so I'm probably not your "average" writer, but don't give me a swelled head, lol. Every once and a while you'll see this kind of stuff nestled in between the recipes, whenever the mood strikes--I'm glad you liked it!