Downsize this! Americans escalate their war on fat

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bobo "Refrigerator" Simon says his days with a 48-inch waistline are numbered - whether he likes it or not.

"McDonald's cutting back its supersize menu is the last straw," says the appliance salesman, chomping into a carton of fries in the cold shadow of some Golden Arches here. "You know when the dieting craze hits one of America's biggest fast-food outlets, there's no place left for us fatties to hide."

That isn't literally true, of course, not in the land of the Big Gulp. But America has a fresh fixation on a problem that, apparently, has become extra, extra large. The nation's war on fat is escalating on several fronts, from exercise to fast-food-bashing to the carb-consciousness in which "Atkins" is in, starch is out.

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On one level, it's all too familiar. The "battle of the bulge" has gone from dieting catchphrase to cliché and back to a piece of World War II history. But there's now an undercurrent of urgency that makes this time different.

Tuesday the government said smoking may soon be overtaken by poor diet and lack of exercise as the leading cause of preventable deaths.

"America is in the midst of a sea change in shifts of how we look at food and dieting," says Amy Lanou, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington research group that emphasizes preventive approaches.

The comment echoes that of other health experts and culture watchers who say see McDonald's announcement last week that it will no longer offer the famous portion upgrade known as "supersize" - larger fries and drinks for pennies extra - as part of new consciousness in the US.

Recent studies indicate that one-third of Americans are overweight and one-fifth are obese.

The responses are becoming widespread:

• With obesity surging in children, school districts increasingly are saying no to sugary food and sodas.

• State legislatures doubled the number of bills and resolutions this year targeting what is now perceived as a crisis, especially among children - taxing movie tickets to pay for fat-fighting programs, beefing up phys-ed in schools, and requiring restaurants to offer healthier options on children's menus. And a number are considering exempting restaurants from being sued for weight-related health issues.

• Whether liable or not, businesses are adapting, too. Southwest Airlines now asks some larger passengers to purchase two seats on crowded flights - to prevent discomfort for other fliers. Grocery aisles offer smaller soda cans and "low-carb" foods.

Where the view in the mirror has long driven the diet-conscious, today more and more parents are noticing how many of their kids are dimpled, dumpy, paunchy and plump, and are concerned.

The move by McDonald's is about more than just portion size. After decades of dieting focused on low-fat foods, the battleground has shifted to carbohydrates as the primary culprit in the nation's overeating habits. Ads for the "Atkins" and "South Beach" low-carb diets are are virtually inescapable. Newer methods ("Beyond Atkins") are already refining the concept.

Besides nutritional scrutiny, experts say the last quarter century has highlighted other American predilections that are as close under our noses as the sneeze guard at your local buffet. One is the need for exercise, especially as sedentary commutes grow longer. Another is for a healthy mental outlook. Then there's the fact that Americans like their products on the big side - from SUVs to big-screen TVs. Put food in that equation, and it helps explain why the American body has been getting larger.

Mix the two trends together and you get a fat sandwich with a side of corpulence.

"For all kinds of reasons, Americans have become completely conditioned to see basic serving sizes as something much larger than 30 to 40 years ago, and that is our biggest problem," says Ms. Lanou. American meal portions have grown, along with markings on packages which say what a "normal" helping is.

The trend separates America from the practices of Europeans, experts say, with smaller portions typical from France to Italy to Spain and even Germany.

"From candy bars to soda to bagels the portions are out of control," says Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh. She chronicles the rise of all-you-can eat restaurants where consumers learn to overeat because they want the most for their money.

The obesity challenge may run up against with another American penchant - the habit of suing to hold others accountable. The prospects of endless litigation about such food is becoming of more than passing concern.

"Psychologically in America in the past 10 years, we have become so lawsuit driven that it has seeped into the mind-set of an entire generation that anything can be made the problem of anyone else except yourself," says Terra Wellington, host of a Phoenix-based national TV series on balanced living. "We are becoming a nation of blaming, rejecting personal responsibility and lacking common sense."

But the US Congress is considering a so-called "cheeseburger bill," which would prevent Americans from suing fast-food giants such as McDonald's for making them overweight.

Indeed, even in a blame-game society, there is evidence that Americans are learning lessons and moving forward.

Grocery and restaurant associations report that the growth of healthier cuisines has never been stronger since the early days of nouvelle cuisine in the mid-70s, to spa and California cuisines in the eighties and "fusion" in the 1990s - all food movements which focused on lighter, less caloric food and sauces, and more diverse menus, balanced by fish, vegetables and fruits.

"It is taking time, but we are wising up, somewhat," says Susan Johnson, owner of Susan's Healthy Gourmet, a southern California firm that delivers fresh, calorie-counted gourmet meals. Nine years ago, she says her firm was considered a niche market, now her fare is mainstream.

"People are ... telling waiters to hold the butter, put the dressing on the side, and hold the bun."

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