Thursday, September 1, 2011

And I'm Hungry For More

On Tuesday's edition of Countdown with Keith Olbermann (remember, it's on Current now), Anthony Bourdain sat down to talk obesity in the United States, and specifically, how to get people to stop getting fatter.

According to Bourdain, "We're not going to win it on the facts, clearly. We've been publishing dietary information. If anything, we seem to be polarizing it into a red state/blue state issue, a rich/poor issue, which is all wrong, wrong, wrong." He figures the way to go is to make it a matter of patriotism, of defending the country-- after all, the obese aren't about to be able to run down al-Qaeda. The thing he would hate to have to do is to advance the issue by force, to start throwing around fat taxes and banning certain foods or ingredients.

If you happen to have bought his book Medium Raw, you may have already seen this argument. There, as he explains,

"It is repugnant, in principle, to me-- the suggestion that we legislate against fast food. We will surely have crossed some kind of terrible line if we, as a nation, are infantilized to the extent that the government has to step in and take the Whoppers right out of our hands. It is dismaying-- and probably inevitable. When we reach the point that we are unable to raise a military force of physically fit specimens-- or public safety becomes an issue after some lurid example of large person blocking a fire exit-- they surely shall."

It may or may not have to go that far, Tony. But look around at the landscape, some of the contributing factors, and the signs appear grim.

Much has been made, for example, about the impact of suburbia and urban sprawl. In compact, highly dense cities- New York, for example- most of what you need on a daily basis is within walking distance. It had better be, because the glut of cars on the road make it difficult to drive anywhere. Because everything's nearby, because you walk so much, the walking is deemed by your body to be exercise. You get slimmer as a result.

But in suburbia, or in sprawling cities like Phoenix or Los Angeles, walking is not feasible much of the time. You have to drive to do your daily business- to go to the store, to get to work, to get even within your neighborhood. And while you drive, you sit down. Sometimes you sit down while getting your food, going through a drive-thru. And food that works in a drive-thru is decidedly not fine dining. It's burgers, fries, tacos, fried chicken, soda, the like.

Bourdain hits upon the second factor in the interview with Olbermann:

"This is not a class issue, though some would like to portray it as that; that poor people, the working poor can't afford to eat well. This is nonsense. We are sending a message that this is what the poor should eat. We're telling, these are what your options are, these are the flavors you should expect. And in fact, you see people eating the deep-fried butter sticks recently at this political circus out there-- somehow, you're making a positive political statement by eating a stick of butter in batter? In what way is this good for our country?"

What Bourdain is finding here is what I see as a culture of gluttony. We have two competing cultures in this country regarding food, a culture of gluttony and a culture of healthiness.

The culture of healthiness works its butt off to get people to eat better and to exercise. There's a gigantic industry surrounding the idea, from weight-loss DVD's to new diet books out every week to everything that has Jillian Michaels in it to various periodic efforts from the White House. They all encourage you to get up off your butt, eat less, get in shape, because you'll feel so much better about yourself and you'll live longer and have all these other health and self-esteem benefits.

On the other side, you have the culture of gluttony. It's not nearly as well-funded. It doesn't have to be. The messaging is more attractive. The rewards are simpler, easier, more in tune with the instant-gratification, reality-TV era in which we concurrently live. Jillian Michaels may tell you that losing weight will give you self-esteem and let you live a long time down the road, but that's a long time down the road and it's only friends and family. Here's Adam Richman on Man Vs. Food telling you that if you can down a 5-pound cheesesteak in an hour at a restaurant near you, you'll get to be famous by way of getting your face on a restaurant wall, and the whole restaurant will be cheering you on the whole time. And if you win, you might get your meal free! Richman may denounce this kind of eating as a regular thing, but any anti-gluttony messaging is thoroughly lost in the fervor of Richman shoving hot wing after hot wing down the hatch.

People look at the two and, however many overtures are made about the rest of the country being too fat, they join in. They may diet, once in a while, but as soon as dieting starts being hard, they stop and reach for the ice cream. Or they rationalize their body as a lifestyle choice and proudly reach for the ice cream because That's What America Is All About.

I'm not saying I'm perfect myself. Far from it. I eat more junk than I really should, less foliage than I should. But I have my limits. I do at least try to keep from going balloon-y. When I go buy a steak, I try and find one without any strips of outright fat, or at least as little as possible. There is a point at which I look at a food product and go 'okay, that's just disgusting'. For me, the line turned out to be Oreo Cakesters, which tasted fine enough in the abstract, but after four or five- not in one sitting, but overall- the feeling became 'geez, do I really want to keep eating this?' Double Downs and Quad Stackers and whatever ode to clogged arteries that Carl's Jr. came up with this time just aren't going to happen.

Bourdain, though, makes a misstep when he introduces shame as a tactic:

"I'm all for shaming people into behaving better. I see nothing wrong with a little shame and ridicule in this war, honestly. When it takes you ten minutes to get out of your car, this is a problem. It's not a body image question. Someone's going to have to help you, and i think as a society, we should be willing to help you and encourage you in every way. You know, you're slowing people down. You are blocking means of egress. We're in a burning building, and we're all leaving together. You're 600 pounds, you're a problem for the people behind you. So you're a societal problem, you're not a lifestyle choice."

Is shame a thing in America right now? Is shame even a word in the dictionary anymore? I mean, look around. Seriously look around. The kind of people that need shaming are utterly shameless. Worse, many are or have become shameless contrarians, who will do something self-destructive simply because they were told not to.

And that gets into the "red state/blue state issue" point he brought up at the top. He thinks that's able to be overcome with making healthiness patriotic, but the thing is, how do you get from here to there when 'here' is a nation that introduces the most horrifyingly fattening things we can think of as beloved Americana while barely even batting an eyelash? After all, state fairs are a piece of Americana, and anything you can eat at a state fair must be Americana too by extension, and so by one of the most twisted applications of deductive reasoning since 'she did X and our crops failed, so she's a witch', fried butter is now what makes America great. To have someone try to take it away, or be perceived as doing so, is thus somehow un-American.

We haven't yet figured out how to de-politicize much of anything else, at least in this environment. I don't hold out much optimism that obesity will be much different. Words and even logic aren't really going to work right now. Jamie Oliver has made healthy eating his personal battleground and look how hard the poor guy has to fight just to get heard, much less listened to. Structural changes, like making cities more dense and more pedestrian-friendly, are needed, but in addition to that, the fat tax is, unfortunately, probably as inevitable as Bourdain claims- at least, as soon as a Congress more inclined towards action is seated. We probably don't have to go so far as banning foods, but perhaps some of the more destructive chemicals- such as red 40- could stand to go.

After that, if people want to eat themselves into the grave, well, that's their lifestyle choice.

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