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Two steps backward in the fight against obesity


One of the disadvantages we have in this whole “being hated by the world wide” thing is that, in any country on planet Earth, American visitors can easily be picked out of a crowd. We’re the fat people in tennis shoes.

It seems unlikely that we'll be able to blend in any time soon. Our collective philosophy for the last fifty years has been, “supersize everything,” (the fries, the drink, and the ass). Now, we have nothing but the occasional eating disorder to steer us away from our collective goal of literally compounding into forty-eight states of pure, solid American jiggle. And, when I say eating disorder, I mean the kind universally acknowledged as bad, not the kinds universally ignored because they're either marketed as diets or accepted as the daily sustenance of the average.

Indeed, more than half of all American adults are overweight, and 40% of those qualify as obese. But, don’t listen to those doctors telling you that obesity is linked to strokes, heart disease, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, many cancers, diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, respiratory problems… Where was I? Oh, yes. Forget about all that, because according to a new ad campaign, the last century of medical research linking obesity to an astonishing array of health problems was nothing but a bunch of hype.

A recent Center for Disease Control report has contradicted every other CDC report to date by moving obesity down a few notches on the list of most common causes of death, thereby leaving an opening restaurant chains just couldn’t miss: a chance to tell their customers that their ever-expanding waistlines may be less likely to kill them than previously thought. In fact, using this data, obesity would fall below even smoking when ranking causes of early demise.

Although leadership at the CDC has yet to approve the findings, a $600,000 ad campaign, armed with this cheery bit of information, is soon to be launched. Ads will appear in every major newspaper in the country, in Newsweek, on billboards, and yes—on public transportation, all aiming to convince Americans to stop counting those calories and start enjoying the menu’s newest bacon-laden monstrosity.

Hot damn, Betty, fire up the deep-fry, ‘cause fat’s less likely to kill you than smoking! Never mind the fact that smoking is linked to many of the same diseases, and cigarette-pushers have been arguing for years that smokers who die of those diseases—obese or not—usually find smoking listed as their cause of death. And, just for the record, fatty meals are also less likely to be lethal than snorting arsenic or jumping off of a tall building.

I would love to name the companies responsible for this charming little piece of Americana, but none of them will ‘fess up. When asked who paid for the ads, the group responsible declined to comment, acknowledging only that the restaurant industry was a substantial source of funds. When questioned, the parent company of casual dining giants Red Lobster and Olive Garden refused to confirm or deny having cut a check. Applebee’s, Inc., (a company that believes bacon, eggs and cheese are essential ingredients of a garden salad,) was equally silent on the subject.

That’s right: we’ve finally reached a point in this society when even non-political ad campaigns are so dishonest and potentially damaging that the parties responsible won’t admit to having paid for them. Was that in Orwell, Vonnegut or Huxley? I forget which one. Really, an effective public relations representative would have confirmed and made their case, rather than undermine a campaign they just doled out over half a million big ones for. Luckily, these guys don’t seem to have it very together. If they were more organized, they might just be evil enough to decide the next President.

Not that competence would bring them any moral authority. These companies could defend themselves better, but the fact remains that a large portion of the American food industry are little better than a gang of street pushers. They offer the instant gratification of a poison to the most vulnerable segment of society they can (the poor seem the easiest target). In some documented cases fast food restaurants, for instance, they have actually attempted to induce addiction through chemistry.

Luckily for us, there’s also a pharmaceutical industry with poisons of their own, equally eager to push drugs to combat the effects of our dietary disaster—with some side effects and a heavy price tag, of course. But, then, these connections are nothing new. That’s why the two industries invest heavily in the Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with protecting the American people from poison pushers.

Back in the dark ages known as the twentieth century, our government used sticks, stones and a lot of beef and dairy council money, to develop an easy guide to keep Americans chronically obese: the food pyramid. It was a ridiculously simplistic model that, when taught in school, turned eating into a chore. In addition to two to three servings of meat each and every day, the pyramid called for a whopping six to eleven servings of grains. Six to eleven servings? That’s not a day of healthy eating; it’s a trip to the lunch truck for the entire cast of Fat Actress.

Just so we’re clear: I’m not bashing Kirstie Alley’s weight. I would say that she’s representative of most Americans, but for a 53 year old woman, even heavy, "Divine / Wynonna Judd eyebrows" Alley makes her Midwestern contemporaries look like a bunch of sad, ugly little moo-cows. Her having to create a show based on the novelty of what she’s become just to get work is indicative of not one but two things wrong with our society: our horrendous diets and the sanitized way we want to see ourselves represented in fiction. (If I were to bash her for anything, it would be the show's wild inconsistency. The three great, three bad and one nearly unwatchable episode comprising the first season do not give me great confidence in its potential longevity.)

But, back to the food pyramid, which today is most valuable as a bit of kitsch—the midnight movie of health science. The ideas that one would see iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach as having the same nutritional value, and white bread as a source of vital nutrients, are so absurd that the naïveté required to buy into it is downright cute. It’s like Washington and the Cherry Tree, or nuke-proof desks. Only a government bureaucrat could have turned the chemical process’ that fuel the human body into “Leaded, Unleaded, and Super,” and be so bereft of decency as to turn that disinformation on our children.

Half a century later, Americans are fatter than ever. So, the federal government has seen the error of its ways and turned the food pyramid on its side. Literally. This, of course, gives us another pyramid (in fact, twelve new pyramids). Actually, in what could be read as an acknowledgment of the fact that many human beings have lived long and healthy lives without meat ever having touched their lips, the hierarchical nature of the classic pyramid has been replaced by a series of obelisks representing each food group, joined together at the top.

There’s also a handy-dandy website that, when given your age, sex and length of daily exercise, will tell you how many Calories you should ingest on any given day. Other factors, height and weight for instance, don’t fit into the new and improved model. And for all you Happy Days fans out there, the new pyramid still has every fundamental flaw that made the old one so charming. It still doesn't emphasize exercise, which most believe to be an even more important factor in determining human health than diet and amount body fat. And it still places questionable industry assertions about nutritional value over well-documented disadvantages of several foods.

I have, in the past, called for Democrats to make dismantling and replacing the FDA a top priority. Each move the organization makes reaffirms my belief. We live with a government that likes to pick our poisons for us, and so far has allowed this agency to do a spectacularly poor job of sorting out the good from the bad. Now, we can't run an advertisement for cigarettes unless it is accompanied by a warning twice as large blaring, "You will die if you touch these!" but obesity can be promoted on the side of any bus. One food pyramid was acknowledged as a failure, so twelve clones have been offered as a replacement. Either the decision-making machine, or the very process itself, has got to go.

And, quickly, please. Do you know how hard it is to find pants with an inseam six inches longer than the waist? For some reason, I thought not.

Avery Walker is a weekly contributor and Deputy Managing Editor for Raw Story. His blog may be found at, and he can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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