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Fat Land

Posted by tinako on September 17, 2010

I just read Fat Land, by Greg Critser; its tagline is “How Americans became the fattest people in the world.”

What I liked about this book is that it gave an interesting account of how and why portion sizes in movie theaters and restaurants went up.  Briefly, people will not order two packages of popcorn because it makes them feel like gluttons.  This is a problem for movie theaters, because while movie tickets were not all that profitable, the popcorn and drinks were high-markup items, very cheap items for which people would pay a lot.   They tried two-for-one deals, combos, specials, it didn’t matter; one person would not buy two popcorns.  In hindsight the solution seems obvious, but it was a breakthrough in the 1960s: get people to spend just a little more on larger sizes of popcorn and drinks.  The theater adds pennies of popcorn and charges dimes for it.  Sales increases were astounding, and the idea was reluctantly but successfully carried over to fast food.  Voila. [pp.20-1]

Greg Critser

I also liked a brief explanation of why HFCS is not the same as table sugar, despite industry advertising to the contrary [pp.136-7].  There is also a sobering, no, shocking summary of the things that can happen to diabetic bodies [p.141+].

Other than those concise explanations, I had difficulty with the book.  My problems with it were:

1. The writing was frequently unclear.  I’ve read many books on the subject of food in America, and am not sure I’ve come across one that I had so much trouble understanding.   I can’t point to an example now, but I would reread the section a few times and then scratch my head and move on.  It wasn’t that it was a terribly complicated concept; I just felt it was obtusely communicated.

2. I also found the organization within chapters poor and jumpy.  The ending was abrupt, three short paragraphs referring to Dante’s circles of hell that appeared to be tacked on when he realized he needed to finish the book in the next 60 seconds.

3. There was a chapter on physical education that I simply could not force myself to complete.  I got about three quarters through, but it was just too boring.  Granted, my interest is food, so maybe this is my problem and others would be more excited about the history of gym classes.

4. He has a split personality on who is to blame.  Chapters one and two are about how government and industry have sabotaged our food environment, from trade policies promoting palm oil, to that popcorn and french fry supersizing.  But then chapter three, “World Without Boundaries (Who Let the Calories In)”  lambastes permissive American culture, as though once, earlier in the twentieth century, we were all upright citizens who could control ourselves, and then suddenly, mid-century, people fundamentally changed and were now rampant hedonists.  Well, it could be that at one time homo sapiens was able to control its urges and then, coincidentally, just as business started discovering how to get us to buy more, homo sapiens changed and now were a bunch of losers.  Or, it could be that those pious early humans didn’t have pharmacies that sold potato chips, 20-oz. Coke vending machines in schools, and 610-calorie french fries on every block.  People have always wanted “what they want, when they want it.”  But now someone is shoving it in their faces.

One sentence particularly annoyed me: “Parents must take back control of the table” [p.161].  I don’t think he was talking about me, since I provide a healthy diet to my kids and do my best to shield them from unhealthy outside influences.  But that’s just it!  There are so many ways in which our food environment undermines parental efforts in this respect.  Restaurant kids meals are always horrible, commercials on TV encourage kids to eat unhealthy food, teachers have kids visit web sites from candy companies in school, unhealthy snacks are often given to kids in preschool programs, lollypops are handed out on the way out of restaurants, fast food restaurants line the streets near schools, candy and sugary drinks are sold at gas stations and drug stores on the way home from school, schools have vending machines selling sports drinks and candy, weekly birthday or holiday parties include cupcakes with 4″ of icing, classes that behave well earn pizza or doughnut parties; chips, cookies, ice cream, and Little Debbie snack bars are sold daily in the lunchrooms, and on the first day of school my son’s teacher handed out taffy to kids who raised their hands.  Every one of these situations makes parents’ job, to raise healthy kids, harder.

In his last chapter, “What Can Be Done,” Critser seems to make more sense again; he suggests two successful personal approaches such as weight loss intervention programs for schoolchildren and educating and encouraging children to have less screen time, but most of the ideas are not about personal, unilateral change, but about changing the environment: schools, fat or sugar taxes, playgrounds, and other federal programs.  I think Critser has the right idea; he just forgot about it in chapter three.

I agree with Kelly Brownell that obesity is a failure of personal choice, but also a failure of environment.  Our current environment is undermining our attempts to make good choices.  Blaming individuals, either one-by-one or collectively, is not a helpful strategy.

4 Responses to “Fat Land”

  1. Thank you for reading my book!
    Greg Critser

  2. […] at the same time.  We also haven’t had a global collapse of willpower in the last 30 years [I criticized the book Fat Land which seemed to suggest this].  All these personal attributes don’t seem as though they could drive a sudden global […]

  3. […] kids, even though I side-step them myself.  Here are some other ways I mentioned in an earlier blog about how the food environment impacts my kids despite my best efforts.  We seldom eat out or […]

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