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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Obesity In America

NY Times Book Review on 'Fat Land'. Intriguing excerpt:

At least from a business perspective, the fattening of America may well have been a necessity. Food companies grow by selling us more of their products. The challenge they face is that the American population is growing much more slowly than the American food supply -- a prescription for falling rates of profit. Agribusiness now produces 3,800 calories of food a day for every American, 500 calories more than it produced 30 years ago. (And by the government's lights, at least a thousand more calories than most people need.) So what's a food company to do? The answer couldn't be simpler or more imperative: get each of us to eat more. A lot more.

Well, perhaps we could export more. But I will tag along regardless.

Some of the credit for creating this new environment belongs to an unheralded businessman by the name of David Wallerstein, the man Critser says introduced ''supersizing'' to America. Today Wallerstein is an executive with McDonald's, but back in the 1960's he worked for a chain of movie theaters, where he labored to expand sales of soda and popcorn -- the high-markup items that theaters depend on for their profitability. Wallerstein tried everything he could think of to goose sales -- two-for-one deals, matinee specials -- but found he couldn't induce customers to buy more than one soda and one bag of popcorn. Why? Because going for seconds makes people feel like pigs.

But Wallerstein discovered that people would spring for more popcorn and soda -- a lot more -- as long as it came in a single gigantic serving. Thus was born the Big Gulp and, in time, the Big Mac and jumbo fries. Though Ray Kroc himself took some convincing: the McDonald's founder had naively assumed that if people wanted more fries they'd buy another bag. He didn't appreciate how social taboos against gluttony (one of the seven deadly sins, after all) were holding us back. Wallerstein's dubious achievement was to devise the dietary equivalent of a papal dispensation: Supersize it!

Hey, cool! Now, I have seen the Subway's ads, so I know they are trying to create a niche for themselves as the healthy alternative. Too bad that every time I actually go to a Subway, the menu seems to be emphasizing dessiccated donkey dung. But I do eat less...

Finally, the reviewer is disappointed that the writer does not issue a clarion call for greater government involvement:

Indeed, the question of responsibility looms large in the growing debate over obesity, and it is here that Critser loses his footing a bit. While ''Fat Land'' does an excellent job connecting the dots between government and corporate policies and the fattening of America, by the end of the book the problem has largely, and somewhat inexplicably, been redefined in terms of personal responsibility. Critser expresses the hope that ''the food industry might . . . take it upon itself to do something'' like resize portions, but nothing that has come before gives us reason to think the industry would ever do any such thing.

Well, given the state involvement in Medicare and Medicaid, it is undeniable that there are public policy implications here. Hmm. If having a military draft to build our national character does not trouble some folks, how could they object to a mandatory quarterly weigh-in? Perhaps variable Medicare deductions based on weight and health-related stats, or a penalty on (future) Social Security payments for non-compliance. OK, it is a libertarian nightmare, but would folks object if a private insurer proposed something similar? NO, because they could choose to use a different insurer - faux comparison!

I'm guessing out loud here - I can't even imagine what sort of regs the reviewer has in mind, and he is not saying. "That bag of chips is to big, m'am - come with us."? Maximum serving sizes? Whatever.

OK, over to the ever-slender, yet intellectually supersized Jane Galt, who has been on diets for weeks now.

UPDATE: The Monday Times joins in: school lunches and school phys-ed! OK, if you are looking for logic...

And if you want everything you thought you knew about obesity and health thrown out the window, check out TNR with the puzzling links: "Weighting Game".

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