As New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg seeks to pass a law banning the selling of large sodas in movies, baseball games and the like, America’s epidemic of fat has again hit the news, with one in three Americans obese, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Fifteen years ago, that number was one in five. What’s more, 32 million more Americans are projected to be obese by 2030, according to ABC News, pushing our projected obesity rate up to 42%.
The medical and indirect costs of dealing with all that fat is $550 billion. Couldn’t we Americans use our money in other ways?
Free market proponents claim we, as individuals, have a “right” to be fat, even as the epidemic damages our collective health – promoting an onslaught of diabetes 2 and the like while also promoting shame and a disinclination to physical activity. (Quick, when was the last time you took a bike ride from Santa Monica/Venice to the Palos Verdes peninsula, surely one of the most gorgeous rides on this planet?) And yet, even as we lard ourselves in fat, we resist solutions. Thus, most New Yorkers oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed plan, 51 to 46 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. The largest resistance comes from males (55 to 41 percent) and from those over 50 years old. Opponents also include the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who instead calls for a non-nanny supervised freedom of choice. But how free are we, really?
The de facto lack of choice goes beyond doughnuts – and only doughnuts - being served at that tennis resort’s front desk. It is also reinforced by something we Americans excel at: marketing. The food store nearest my former home in Santa Monica, for example, was a 7-11 on Wilshire Blvd., where the easiest food to buy were chips - rows and rows of chips – alongside sugary pastries. But it was the soda dispenser I found truly offensive.
I’d often stop by if I had a 30 minute plus drive – which meant just about any drive in L.A. With fruit in rare supply, junk food was my way of consoling myself while stuck in traffic. And here is where I got jammed.
I would buy the 20 ounce Gulp - until the store discontinued selling it in favor of selling only the 32-ounce Big Gulp, and sizes up from there. To be buy the 20-ounce Gulp, I had to drive an extra mile to a store on Santa Monica Blvd. – and who knew how long that size would even last there?. But my struggle was not just against excess consumption of sugary water. When my ex and I ate out, we often split a single dinner, which was more than enough food. The problem arose when I ate alone, asking the waiter to put half order on my plate, and the other half in a to go bag. If the entire meal were sitting in front of me, I said, I would not be able to resist eating it.
The restaurant couldn’t do that, the explanation invariably came back. I should eat what I wanted, and they would wrap up the rest. Getting the only way which really worked for me was nearly always a fight. The default setting was for more, not less, food consumption.
Nor are things much better in New York. A Chinese take out place has a minimum for its orders, which insures that the customer either buys the “value” size, or gets the small size, with a soda. I no longer drink soda, I explained. No soda, no delivery.
It was only after I had cancelled an order that the take out place relented.
And this take out place is surrounded by multiple fast food restaurants with “meal deals” which include a “free” soda. What if I want a “meal deal” with, say, a salad instead? Then, no deal. Such is the background against which Mayor Bloomberg has proposed to ban the sale of single sodas over 16 ounces. (A customer could still buy two sodas, and the ban does not extend to 7-11’s).
No, I don’t expect the Mayor’s plan to solve New York’s obesity epidemic. Rather, I see the plan as yet another small stone placed on the thinness side of the scale. The side that would hopefully push 7-11 to bring back the 20 ounce Gulp and – can it be too much to ask? – perhaps even the once standard: the 12 ounce size. The side which would encourage the downsizing of restaurant portions, and which would push for a “meal deal” including a “free” salad.
Because right now, America’s default position is stuck on fat. Our American “free choice” is to wage an uphill battle to get and stay healthy. And as more of us become obese, our perception of what obesity means changes. Perhaps we will consider only the scale-busting behemoths on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” - and not ourselves - to be truly fat. What’s more, as anyone who has gone on a diet knows, getting the extra weight off is substantially harder than keeping it off in the first place. So, why not stop our obesity addiction before it starts?
Smaller sugary sodas are a good step in this direction.
Of course, businesses still have to make money. But what if, instead of selling us bigger sodas, they make their money selling us healthier, more sensibly proportioned food? Just as smoking was once fashionable but now is correctly seen as a health risk, so, too, do we need to re-conceptualize food. The best results will not come from individuals battling to get non-supersize portions, but from resetting the norm to smaller, healthier portions.
Otherwise, like that obese hotel manager too ashamed to show herself in public, we will continue paying the price not just in our health, but in our self-esteem.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist