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.