The skinny on fat fascism

July 23, 2002

There's a grassroots movement afoot in America that aims to blame and penalize fast-food makers for the problem of obesity in America.

Restaurants selling any food or drink Jenny Craig would ban are serving up dietary disasters and victimizing customers, such folks say.

In June, the Center for Science in the Public Interest published its much-reviled report, "What a Pizza Delivers." The newsletter sampling of the whiny watchdog's larger work, Restaurant Confidential, earned the ire of the National Restaurant Association and many pizza companies.

Steve Coomes, Editor

The report dubbed pizzas a minefield of saturated fat and asked the question, "How many of our clogged arteries do we owe to this enormously popular dish?"

Alarmists also seized the opportunity to congratulate CSPI on its research, and others used it to renew arguments against eating anything more fattening than water and lawn clippings.

The Boston Globe recently quoted social activist, John Banzaf, who is working toward the creation of a fat tax on snacks and fast foods in general. If he doesn't achieve that aim, he said he'll move his efforts to the courtroom.

'If we can't legislate, we'll litigate,' Banzhaf said.

Denise Amos, a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer admitted that because she's overweight, she would favor a tax on fast foods. Having to pay more for food she now willingly buys, she surmised, would help her "wean off doughnuts and pizza."

Ridiculous, isn't it.

If you're a pizzeria operator, you likely don't agree with such radicals. But you must admit, it's impossible to deny the problem of obesity in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are seriously overweight and 14 percent of all teens are overweight.

In a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, an article titled "What If It's All a Big Fat Lie?" pointed to the alarming rise in Type 2 diabetes, which researchers have linked to the growing consumption of fast food and snacks.

Sounds logical, right?

Maybe not.

The article also detailed new research that's chipping away at long-held notions of what makes us fat, findings that may dismantle the very foundations of the famed Food Pyramid.

The article cited concerns over Americans' increased intake of carbohydrates -- not fats -- as the real fertilizer for the country's corpulence.

The byproduct of digested carbohydrates is sugar. Researchers believe that once those sugars are in the bloodstream, insulin production increases, and that, in essence, tells the body not to burn its stored fat.

Refined starches and sugars -- in the form of low-fiber breads (such as pizza crusts, burger buns, etc.), cookies, pastas, sugared sodas, candies, etc. -- make up the bulk of the carbohydrates under question, and it's their consumption that could be blamed for the nation's growing girth.

Diet riot

The medical community has few better-known pariahs than Dr. Robert Atkins, the researcher behind the highly controversial Atkins Diet. For 30 years, Atkins has fingered high-carbohydrate diets as one possible cause of obesity, and he has ruffled many a feather with his belief that a high-fat diet can cure it.

"Food fright, fat taxes and lawsuits won't wither anyone's waistline, even with the well-intentioned efforts of some. And until it's proven illegal to serve a slice of double-cheese, extra-meat pizza, consumers will continue to order it because that's the way some like their food."

Explaining that seeming irony would require more space than I'm allowed, but one of Atkins' essential claims is this: About two decades ago, when Americans began eating low- and no-fat foods in earnest, they started to get fatter, not thinner, like they'd hoped.

As detailed in the Times Magazine article, not only did health agencies agree with reduced-fat diet regimes, they also recommended increased carbohydrate intake.

The food manufacturing industry also got into the game via a physiological shell game of sorts. By creating reduced-fat foods, calories once attributed to fat merely were shuffled over to carbohydrates. The public perceived that as better, and reduced-fat foods became a hit.

All the while Atkins continued to preach his high-fat "cure" for obesity while enduring the scorn of doctors who thought him a quack. Additionally, a horde of skinny diet devotees has accumulated in Atkins' record books and the book detailing his diet has become a best seller.

Fact or fantasy?

So what does this say about research done by fat fascists like CSPI? At the very least it makes the group's findings questionable. If CSPI bases its dietary danger levels on Food Pyramid numbers approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the American Dietetic Association and the Centers for Disease Control -- numbers researchers quoted in the Times article call questionable -- then what's the chance CSPI's claims are valid?

Additionally, in light of mounting research leading to concerns about carbohydrate consumption, why does "What a Pizza Delivers" include only numbers on calories, total fat, saturated fat and sodium? At the very least, that makes CSPI's efforts appear incomplete.

Does that point to the Atkins Diet -- or any other low- to no-carb diets -- as the solution to the country's obesity problem? Doubtful. Initial findings point to those diets as weight loss options, not lifelong dietary standards everyone should adopt.

The bottom line is this: Food fright, fat taxes and lawsuits, no matter how well-intended, won't wither anyone's waistline. Until it's proven illegal to serve a slice of double-cheese, extra-meat pizza, consumers will continue to order it because that's the way some like their food. Some of those, believe it or not, will even do the smart thing and burn off those "fun" calories through exercise.

Meantime I'll attempt to live out Mark Twain's advice: In all things moderation, even moderation.

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