Just How Did We Get This Fat?

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An essay in last weeks New Yorker amounts to a quickie course in fat studies, with author Elizabeth Kolbert giving us the CliffsNotes on several recently published books that tackle the question, Just how the hell did Americans get so fat? According to The Evolution of Obesity, early man downed high-calorie foods in order to nourish the brain, something that only became a problem as that food became easier to attain. Indeed, food has become cheaper relative to other goods and services, per The Fattening of America. It has also become more addictive: As weve noted, The End of Overeating portrays us as victims of conditioned overeating, and compares the mix of fat, sugar, and salt in so-called eatertainment items to crack. Fat Land and Mindless Eating point out that as portion sizes have grown, so have the easily manipulated bounds of our appetites.

Consider the movie-matinée experiment. Some years ago, Wansink and his graduate students handed out buckets of popcorn to Saturday-afternoon filmgoers in Chicago. The popcorn had been prepared almost a week earlier, and then allowed to become hopelessly, squeakily stale. Some patrons got medium-sized buckets of stale popcorn and some got large ones. (A few, forgetting that the snack had been free, demanded their money back.) After the film, Wansink weighed the remaining kernels. He found that people whod been given bigger buckets had eaten, on average, fifty-three per cent more.

In another experiment, Wansink invited participants to cook dinner for themselves with ingredients that he provided. One group got big boxes of pasta and big bottles of sauce, a second smaller boxes and smaller bottles. The first group prepared twenty-three per cent more, and downed it all. In yet another experiment, Wansink rigged up bowls that could be refilled, via a hidden tube. When he served soup out of the trick bowls, people, he writes, ate and ate and ate. On average, they consumed seventy-three per cent more than those who were served from regular bowls. Give them a lot and they eat a lot, he writes.

While the Fat Studies Reader posits that some people are just preconditioned to be obese and the real problem is a societal fat phobia, Globesity reminds us that overeating puts a strain on health-care systems all over the world, especially in countries like Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Malta, and Slovakia, where there are actually a higher percentage of overweight people than in the U.S.

Speaking of other countries, check out this Spanish McDonalds ad for the NYCrispy burger topped with onions, barbecue sauce, and bacon. It turns a hamburger into an object of NYC hip-hop cool, and the screen even splits into the bars from the Black Flag logo at one point, as if bacon burgers are totally punk rock. Which makes you wonder to what extent does an increase in advertising and the media play into all this? Is that cheery $5 foot-longs song brainwashing us into thinking its perfectly delightful to eat twelve-inch sandwiches every day? Have you found yourself eating more burgers after viewing our top 82?

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