A Fat Country: The Politics and Sociology of Food

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My friends in Spain often accuse me of being blindly pro-American and only criticizing Europe. I always defend myself by saying that this is in fact not at all true. I critique what I see around me. After perhaps sounding too critical of the Mama’s Boy Society, I am going to highlight some of the problems associated with obesity in the United States.

At dinner on Friday night, Loic played with the idea of creating an online community for overweight people to be called AFatWorld (see video) where communities could use a WiFi scale (the La Fatera) and share their weight with their friends and other community members. Actually at the time, I was sitting at another table that was engaged in a much more interesting discussion on the success of Internet dating sites.

In any event, Felix Petersen, co-founder of Plazes, and I had a very interesting conversation about the politics of food.

When I was growing up, there were maybe one or two fat kids in class, and they were always teased. Now when I go to the US, I see that the average kid is just as overweight as those fats kids were. When I mentioned this to Felix, he said that what is interesting about obesity is that there is a total socio-economic change in who is fat and who is skinny.

Historically, obesity was a luxury of the rich only. Now, there is a major shift. Who was generally fat? Poor people and college students. Remember when the poor didn’t have enough to eat? Do you remember the emaciated student? Not any more.

In two income or single parent households, parents generally do not have time to prepare homemade food for their children. Likewise, college students often eat on the go and have to balance their food budget with the amount they spend on books and beer.

Whereas a lack of resources (money, time, and even food) used to mean emaciation, today it means obesity. Eating junk and fast food is actually cheaper than eating healthy and causes weight increase. Felix was also telling me about another article he had read on this matter. Apparently, clever politicians have stuck small print into the Farm Act that gives subsidies to farmers who make processed food cheaper than fresh produce. In other words, the sum of the parts is cheaper than the individual parts. For example, the carrots in the frozen ready-to-eat dinner are cheaper than their fresh equivalent. Thus, by economizing on price and time, people eat more and gain more weight at the expense of their health.

Interestingly enough, “healthy” food sells. There is a major market in the US for healthy foods, and companies claim their products are “organic”, “fat free” or “diet”. Notice that in Europe, for example, you almost never find “Lite Beer”. In the States, even the healthiness of food is not free from politics. My understanding is that the sugar industry has lobbied government and put pressure on food companies to keep them from saying that sugar is linked to obesity. Notice that you no longer see, save with chewing gum, products being sold as “sugar free” anymore. You see “fat free” and “no calories” but never the association between sugar and health/dieting.

If that weren’t enough, it is no longer politically correct to call someone fat or to think of obesity as a personal lifestyle choice. In the US, society is disgusted by smokers, but no one minds people walking down the streets with a huge Starbucks coffee, a Big Gulp, or a Snickers. I find it all so very nauseating, not to mention my aversion to flying US airlines with the lard asses taking up half my seat. I don’t know which special interest group it is, but someone is paying a lot of money to scientific researchers to show that obesity is an illness that we should all be compassionate about.

The fact of the matter is that Americans are always consuming something all day long. Go to a restaurant and the portions are huge, three or four times larger than what you would get in Europe. In Spain, for example, a coffee is always just one espresso shot and does the trick. There is no such thing as coffee sizes. There is no such thing as a Big Gulp or a two liter bottle of coke — they wouldn’t even fit in people’s refrigerators. I have never seen a restaurant offer “all you can eat” or “free refills”. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Americans say that they liked a restaurant because of the size of the portions. The US workplace is like a burrito full of people munching on something and drinking a soda at all hours.

If sugar isn’t the problem, if the huge portions are not the problem, if access to and availability of healthy produce is not the problem, then what is? Is it the automobile or video-on-demand? Is it our lazy sedentary lives? Maybe Americans are just a genetically fat ass people. If so, then I suppose that criticizing their fat asses would be anti-American and against the American way of life. Think about it on your way to get seconds at the all-you-can-eat the salad bar.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Fat Country: The Politics and Sociology of Food

  1. TheCommentKiller

    the US does have the highest obesity rate in the world, http://www.aneki.com/obesity.html,
    but they are not ranked hightest in overweight population, Spain (and many others) have the US beat.
    http://www.aneki.com/overweight.html

  2. hominids = technology
    (read: tool making primate)

    technology = apathy
    (read: lazy tool making primate hoping someone else builds it first so they can just profit from it)

    apathy = obesity
    (read: fat, lazy primate wanting more tools for more apathy so they can be even more obese)

    Mmmmmmm, humanity, you just have to love it. You can almost hear the planet groan under the stress.

    (Strenuous exercise has been shown to eliminate not only obesity, but stage 2 diabetes … pass the Big Mac please, with a diet Coke of course!)

  3. Melissa

    Have to jump in to say that while there are all kinds of factors contributing to the increase in obesity in American kids, many of which you point out (fast food, sedentary lifestyle, evil lobbies), I think that compassion is in order. It’s always been hard to be big in America; I know, because I was never thin even when I was starving myself and running several miles a day. We’re not going to help anyone lose weight by calling them names and taking out our aggression on them. What we need are changes in policy (to support low-cost fresh food) and school lunches; we need incentives from health insurers to exercise; we need ways for kids to get fun and enjoyable exercise at school and beyond, including parks for inner-city kids. And we need to be kind to people who are dealing with weight issues instead of discriminating against them and calling them names. Oh, and finally: There is such a thing as body type. Not everyone is naturally thin, no matter what they eat. So we need room for that, too.

  4. eric

    Melissa,

    You’re taking all of the fun out of my American bashing. I was trying to balance what my friends believe to be my blind pro-Americanism with an exaggerated critique of American decadence.

    But, I think that in many ways you are very right. As a matter of fact, in the US the is much greater compassion for people with weight “issues” than in Europe. Only of the reasons you see less overweight people in Europe is because of pressure to be thin and fit within a certain perfect image. The percentage of eating disorders in Europe is incredible. I see if all of the time.

    I have often times felt that while the US is a country of extreme consumerism, in Europe people are much more materialistic. People are much more brand conscious and brand conscientious. And the pressure to be like everyone else is astonishing. Of course, they don’t have our diversity, yet.

  5. LOL, someday, someone, somewhere is going to explain to me why everything for the hominid becomes an “emotive issue”, as opposed to the observable fact:

    Hominids are genetically defective, in a plethora of levels and degrees. We have only ourselves to blame, and society, (obviously), cannot shoulder the burden as the solitary scapegoat.

    Ownership? LOL. (Now would be a good time for my analytically proficient Uncle to make an appearance with his wealth of knowledge. 🙂 Yes, I am well aware it will not happen.)

  6. Melissa

    Hey, Eric.

    Wow, I hadn’t realized that Europe was even worse than America in terms of eating disorders. That’s disappointing, because I’ve always had the sense that people there knew how to eat and enjoy their food. (And the best meals I’ve had have generally been in Europe, including one in Madrid!)

    Anyway, it’s really kind of amazing how much furor there is right now over the “childhood obesity epidemic.” It seems to me that it’s basically another way to discriminate against large people, but I do get that there are real factors contributing to an increase in size among kids. Actually, there’s a great activist here in the Bay Area who shows a direct correlation between the diet industry and the increase in obesity. It turns out that dieting almost inevitably (i.e., 95% of the time) results in an increase in weight.

    Something else: I think very few people are addressing the concept of overeating as an addiction, as yet another way that people distract from their problems and feelings. (There are so many: alcohol, drugs, gambling, Internet, television, sex, etc.) So until that gets addressed, we’re not likely to see huge changes in behaviors or outcomes. At least, IMHO.

  7. eric

    Melissa,

    Europe has a couple of advantages that I mentioned in this post: people walk, much more than in the States (urban sprawl is only becoming common now); the Mama Boy’s culture where people eat home cooked meals; there is less mass produced frozen foods; and portions in restaurants are not designed to make you full. Also eating between meals is not as common.

    Having said that, things are changing. People are eating more fast food and both parents are entering the workforce in greater numbers. As a result, you see a great increase in overweight people, especially amongst the young people. But, the culture is also more superficial. Feminism has not reach the TV and movie screens. I never see anyone protest at how women are portrayed half naked or naked in commercials or how pornography is so openly available and visible in public places. There are even commercials on TV (all the time) for plastic surgery. The result, at least as I see it, are many young women who are below their natural body weight.

    Also realize that when I talk about the obesity in the US, I am not talking about people whose body types make them bigger than what society wants us to be. I am talking about people who are significantly bigger than what they should be. I have seen people go to college with one body weight and come out triple the size. Spend a few months abroad and the first thing you notice when you get on a plane to go back to the US is how oversized Americans are. It is even the typical stereotype that us Americans have in the rest of the world.

    Finally, I agree. There is a type of addiction that spirals out of control which should be treated as such. Diets do not work. And the irony is that the “diet industry” in the US is making a killing out of something that doesn’t work.

  8. Such an adipose subject, rife and laden with corpulent matter. One could almost say, porcine, in its breadth, and further, requiring ample discussion.

    How else would one uncover the sarcous truth, except with portly facts regarding the obviously gravid topic at hand?

    I should think though, that we should avoid excessive emotion, and apply copious amounts of weighty logic, especially as regards the unwieldy and cumbrous capitalism of the corporations, in their avoirdupois avarice.

  9. Interesting note I just found on obesity ~ researchers are currently studying the microbial foundations of human health.

    They have found that microbes our body symbiotically depend upon are so essential, and essential in large communities, their disruption causes a large number of difficult to diagnose illnesses.

    #1 condition caused, as reported by several different research groups: obesity. Guess what ~ we’re to blame for it, with all our constant oversanitation, and the materials we use to accomplish this idiotic feat.

    Want to be skinny, go get dirty!!!!

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