Fat of the Land

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If you want to encounter the face of America’s obesity epidemic, you could do worse than to visit the Cracker Barrel restaurant located off I-670 just west of Columbus, Ohio where I happened to stop recently with a party of relatives on its way to a memorial service a few miles down the road.

It was my first, and I hope last, visit to a Cracker Barrel, a franchise that features a suffocating dose of Americana kitsch with food that’s substandard even by the criteria of “family dining” chains. One look around, however, made clear that the establishment’s draw was quantity, not quality. By my rough estimate, some three-quarters of the patrons were overweight, and of that number, about half were obese. And of those, the biggest seemed to be ordering the largest orders of high-carb, high-fat specialties of the house like grits and gravy or biscuits and fried chicken.

Of course, the configuration of Cracker Barrel’s clientele will come as no surprise to anyone returning from a trip overseas. On such occasions, it’s almost comical how easy it is to spot our compatriots by their girth, if not their brand-name tee-shirts and day-glo Crocs. If international travelers were levied a surcharge for excess avoirdupois as they are for extra luggage, far fewer of us would be able to afford air fare to London or Frankfort.

But I’m not here to poke fun but to point out some alternative ways of looking at the obesity epidemic. First, however, the relevant fat stats.

At last count 70 percent of Americans are overweight, meaning they have a BMI, or body-mass index of more than 25. Of those, two-thirds meet the definition of obesity – they possess a BMI of more than 30 – and at least one out of every 200 Americans is “morbidly obese,” meaning that he or she is at least 100 pounds overweight and has a BMI of 40 or more.

Alarming as this sounds, things are only going to get worse. Sixteen percent of American children are overweight. Most will grow up to be obese adults. This does not include the sizeable cohort of children who, though they are not overweight now, will become so at some point in adulthood. In fact, the situation has become so dire that some authorities predict that, if nothing is done to reverse trends, the medical complications associated with obesity like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory disease will cause the average life expectancy in the United States actually to decline for the first time in the nation’s history.

We are accustomed to applying the term “sustainability” to topics related to the natural environment. But by any definition of the term, isn’t a national diet – let’s call it a nutritional ecosystem – that shortens rather than prolongs life not just “unhealthy,” but, quite literally, “unsustainable?” Rather than seeing the obesity epidemic purely as a matter of public health or individual and corporate responsibility, it is time that we start to recognize that it is part of a larger pattern of unsustainable practices that characterize American society in general.

As Michael Pollan details in Omnivore’s Dilemma, overeating in America is the tail end of a process that begins with this country’s mind-boggling annual production of 25 billion metric tons of field corn. This “bounty” has many unforeseen negative consequences. For producers it sets off a race to the financial bottom, driven by the insatiable appetite of food processing companies for the cheapest resources possible. In turn, this appetite drives farmers to plant ever more corn in a desperate effort to stave off bankruptcy triggered by falling commodity prices and escalating production costs, mostly in the form of petroleum-based fertilizers and expensive oil-thirsty equipment needed to cultivate larger and larger plots of land. Among other things, this cash crop, fenceline-to-fenceline mentality wreaks devastating ecological damage on our soil and water.

But that 25 billion metric tons of cheap corn present another kind of challenge for the food industry: how to move all of it through the system and ultimately cram it down America’s collective craw in one form or another; human beings, after all, are only able to consume so much, and no more. Here, capitalist ingenuity has all but short-circuited the physical restraints of human appetite with an ever-growing list of uses for corn and corn by-products. For example, animals like dairy cows and cattle, adapted to eat grass rather than grain, are instead stuffed on corn in giant feedlots, then pumped full of antibiotics to stave off the infections that are the inevitable by-products of unsanitary living conditions and an unhealthy diet (a common misconception, never rebutted by the mainstream media, is that today’s explosion of antibiotic-resistant pathogens is primarily caused by the over-prescription of these drugs for people. Not so; most of the problem stems from our massive, one might say even suicidal, overuse of antibiotics in agriculture).

And of course, we must not forget high-fructose corn syrup, whose appearance in the marketplace in the mid-1980s corresponds neatly with the moment when the obesity epidemic took off. Food companies have come up with all kinds of methods to get us to ingest larger and larger quantities of this seductively sweet poison, which studies suggest tricks the metabolic feedback system that lets us know when we are full. Perhaps the most insidious tactic of all was the introduction of 64-ounce carbonated beverages – the killer “Big Gulp” drink – that not only deliver hundreds of empty calories but do so in a form that magnifies the metabolic short-circuiting effect of high-fructose corn syrup: liquids, even when loaded with calories, do not leave us filling “full” as long as an equal volume of solid foods.

So, yes, America’s obesity diet is unsustainable – as unsustainable in its own way as the malnutrition suffered by people living in the world’s poorest nations. In fact, American obesity is the flip-side of malnutrition. The connection between the two – our collective obesity and malnutrition elsewhere – happens to be more than rhetorical. Both are connected to starvation: physical in the case of poor countries; spiritual in the case of the United States. Both are also linked to a gross misallocation of income and resources.

Unlike every other country in the world, obesity in America is concentrated not among the affluent but among our poorest and most marginalized citizens, especially poor African-Americans. This should come as no surprise. We know that overeating can both be triggered by, and contribute to, depression, of which a sense of powerlessness, endemic among the poor, is also a root cause.

And this gives us another reason why we should think of our obesity epidemic as more than just a matter of public health. For the fact is that, like heavy TV viewing – poor Americans also consume more TV than any other class – obesity happens to be a recipe for passivity, even passivity in the face of egregious social, political, and economic inequity. In the United States, it ain’t religion that’s the opiate of the people; it’s food. Indeed, when it comes to our nation’s poor – those who have most to gain by rebelling against the system – there may be no better means of social control than obesity. After all, when your BMI tops 40, you’re much less likely to get out and raise hell for the ruling class. Obesity, then, is just one more way – more or less invisible – for ensuring that the poor and the helpless remain the poor and the helpless.

The American diet. Unsustainable, yes. But very helpful in perpetuating political, economic, social, and environmental practices that may be disastrous in the long run but very profitable and politically useful for some Americans in the short run. It’s almost enough to make you want to binge on grits and biscuits at Cracker Barrel.

Well, almost, anyway.