Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World – Greg Critser, 2003

A great companion to Fast Food Nation, not quite as entertaining a read but just as informative and scary. Critser traces the intersection of factors, operating from the 1970s on, which have resulted in a US environment that promotes obesity: the Secretary of Agriculture whose policies to deal with inflation, as well as corn and soybean surpluses, resulted in lots of cheap calories; the food manufacturers who turned to high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil to raise their profit margins; the dysfunctional government health agencies which kept weakening requirements for exercise and diet; the school budget cuts which led administrators to eagerly seek “pouring contracts” with soda companies and to put fast food on lunchroom menus. Ignoring socio-economic differences, Critser says, exacerbates the situation. Public health messages don’t address poor people’s lack of access to the support systems that rich people have (high-quality, varied food; fees and transporation to excercise facilities; safe places to walk and play outside). Yet concerns over anorexia (a relatively rare disease if you’re not white and middle-class, he argues) lead to softening of counter-obesity messages. I don’t buy everything he says, especially when he claims that Krispy Kreme targets Latinos and supports his claim by idiotic quoting of their Spanish-language menu:

Everywhere the Latin flavor was pushed: “Chocolate iced custard filled” became “Rellena de crema pastelera y cubierta con chocolate.” “Cinnamon apple filled” became “Rellena de manzana y canela.”

Those sneaky Krispy Kreme executives, using translation to suck in customers!

Some of the most thought-provoking bits are the studies showing that when more food is available, people eat more, and that only the very youngest children can be relied on to choose just what they need. Anything that provides a boundary seems to help people eat less, whether it’s parental supervision, small portions, tight clothes, inflexible armchairs, or even a rope around the waist. Fast food merchandisers found that “price and value–not taste and presentation–were the key” to selling more. Gulp–that’s a personal weakness; I used to choose books to buy by how many pages I could get for my money, which is fine, but I do that with treats too, and that’s not so fine. (At least I’ve succeeded in resisting the temptation to buy the incredibly cheap 36-count boxes of candy bars at warehouse stores, though it’s been a struggle.) Fat Land is a fascinating book, and it’s also very well researched and documented.

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