Everything but the stomach staples

“Fat Land”
Greg Critser (Houghton Mifflin)

Until I read Greg Critser’s scarifying “Fat Land,” I thought I had pegged all the vices behind the Macy’s ballooning of America, from fast-food gluttony to TV-remote sloth. Who knew I was part of the problem, as one of those food writers in the Eighties and Nineties who caved to magazine editors who were caving to their fat-free advertisers?
Critser lets no one off the hook in this relentlessly reported, entertainingly written expose of “how Americans became the fattest people in the world.” The subtitle is about the only exaggeration in the book, which proceeds like a combination murder mystery and diet guide. He names names — Ray Kroc, sure, but also Earl Butz and Robert Atkins — and suggests solutions (one school got chubby kids to slim down with videos powered by exercise bicycles).

“Fat Land’s” focus on high-fructose corn syrup is enough to make you break out a crucifix when confronted with a Coke again. The cheap sweetener now used in half the food on sale everywhere is processed differently from sugar by the body, which is one reason why iced tea and Snackwells alike have been bad for backsides. And why drug companies are almost gleefully preparing for the diabetes epidemic building in a country where one in five is obese. But Critser points fingers at other villains, from rap promoters who literally fatten up their big stars to school districts budgeting no money for PE to cynical Krispy Kreme bosses who target low-income neighborhoods where families are “bigger.” He looks at supersizing not just of burger meals but also of clothing and restaurant chairs. Americans, he concludes, are literally paying a heavy price for “have it your way” indulgence. We’re growing into human dinosaurs. (Update April 2020: And I wrote this before “Wall-E.”) 

One of the most chilling points in “Fat Land” is that fat is a class issue. It’s no accident that the poor get fatter while the rich have health food stores and nutrition counselors, not to mention safe neighborhoods to jog through and personal trainers to buy. But Critser saw firsthand how income and education can turn a “fatso” into a svelte investigative reporter. And so he devotes the last half of his book to a polemic on how to reverse the trend, before the day comes when the obese will be ostracized like smokers.

Everyone should read this book, but every food writer should study it, if only to break the chain of sloppy reporting and reliance on the latest nutrition “discovery” underwritten by the Dairymaids Butter Council or Intergalactic Institute of Dark Chocolate. Everything we were told in the Eighties and Nineties is turning upside down these days, starting with the government’s food pyramid itself. Fat in food is not the problem. Calories do count. And so does getting off your fanny every chance you can. Light mayonnaise and fat-free ice cream were never the answer.

As Critser puts it: “The modern media are nothing if not absolutely addicted to the latest health manifestos. If skepticism about them is not their lot, the media’s acceptance is largely based on ignorance and wishful thinking; to paraphrase Mr. Dooley, the newspaper bosses — they like to sit around and eat a Big Mac too.”