Attack of the Giant Killer Food

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Overweight and obesity

For Homer Simpson or a cliché cop, it’s a dream. I have before me a doughnut just smaller than a dinner plate, many times larger than the current average American doughnut that in turn is larger than doughnut sizes from two decades ago. And while this preposterous pastry might seem like a dream to some, dinosaur doughnuts are representative of one of the major causes of a growing American nightmare.

We are the fattest people on earth.

We are suffering an epidemic of obesity. An estimated 300,000 Americans a year die from obesity-related causes. Obesity greatly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and other diseases that kill, along with a host of diseases that don’t kill but can make life miserable.

For example, a 5’4" woman who is merely 44 pounds overweight doubles her risk of breast cancer and more than doubles her risk of the most common form of stroke. You may have heard the expression "fat, but fit." Sorry, but there’s no such animal.

There’s more bad news. Our eating and exercise habits have made Americans the fattest people on earth. Fifteen years ago, a fourth of us were considered obese. Now it’s a third. Three-fourths of us are heavier than optimum health allows.

And no, it’s not just doughnuts doing us in. Monster muffins are now commonly sold in sizes seven times larger than they once were. The original McDonald’s hamburger, bun included, weighed 3.7 ounces. Then came the Quarter Pounder at six ounces and the Big Mac at 7.6 ounces. The recently introduced Arch Deluxe tips the scale at almost nine ounces.

The Green Burrito chain sells its namesake in three-pound portions, while Little Caesar’s boasts pizzas it claims are "bigger than the sun." It’s only a slight exaggeration.

As food portions have grown, so have we.

By one estimate, nearly 25% of the $97 billion American consumers spent on fast food in 1995 went for items promoted on the basis of larger size or extra ingredients.

All You Can Eat (and Then Some)

But fast food, just like doughnuts, is only part of the obesity equation. The Cheesecake Factory restaurants heap pasta helpings so high that Sir Edmund Hillary would have trouble climbing to the top, and even makers of the Lean Cuisine, whose meals presumably are for people watching their weight, have introduced new hefty portions that are 50 percent larger.

More ominous yet is the tremendous growth in steakhouses. In 1995, two of the top 20 fastest-growing chain restaurants were steakhouses. These restaurants commonly sell porterhouses at 28 ounces, not to mention the accompanying french fries or potato with globs of sour cream and butter. At new Brazilian steakhouses that are springing up, you’re not even limited to that. For $15.99 or so you can just keep eating meat until your belly-button pops out and hits a busboy in the eye.

"Youse better drink that giant drink and humongous steak if you know what’s good for youse."

So why do we do it?

Part of the reason is that oversize portions of food are cheaper by the ounce than smaller portions. We are literally penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But perhaps the main reason for this American obsession is that it provides an excuse to pig out. After all, it’s just one burger — even if it could feed the population of a small African town for a week.

In this era of self-indulgence, in which traditional values are sneered at, we have replaced the motto "everything in moderation" with "nothing succeeds like excess." Terms like "sloth" and "glutton" sit behind the barn with the rusty old Studebaker.

The obesity epidemic is symptomatic of a much larger national problem, and solving it is going to take changes in society that go way beyond food.

Calculate your BMI to see if you are obese. What the scores mean:

  • 24 or under: Minimal health risk
  • 25-29: Low to moderate risk
  • 30 or over: High risk