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America and obesity

The eat is on: Fast food in slow lane

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America and obesity have been walking hand in hand for a while now, and on this subject we have mused before (" Fat Accompli", February 19, 2011). The latest word is that all is well;you can stop bitching about the United States being overweight. How so? Well, you see, overweight people now outnumber average people in America, so that makes overweight the new average. Ergo, it's not true anymore that Americans are fat;they are actually...average! Ta-dan !

Jokes aside, it transpires that America's obesity epidemic has moved one of the country's prime contributors of corpulence to contrition. Cheesecake Factory, one of the great architects of America's National Gross Product, has just announced a "skinnylicious" menu listing 40 items, from entrees to desserts, with strict calorie guidelines. This, of course, is a great betrayal of the established American culture of excess and wastage, most evident in the foods domain. Cheesecake Factory, since its inception, and by its very name, built a reputation as a monument to gluttony and self-indulgence. Multiple times winner of the worst family restaurant title in America, its rich pickings included such monstrosities as the Bistro Shrimp Pasta, which, at a mere 2, 730 calories, and packing 78 g of saturated fat and 919 mg of sodium, far exceeded the full day's consumption in most parts of the world.

Bistro Shrimp Pasta was once voted the Worst Food in America, but it had to beat down stiff competition from other worthies such as the Big Country Breakfast with chicken fried steak (2, 440 calories, 145 g of fat and 5, 220 mg sodium) from the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) and the Chicago Classic Deep Dish Pizza (2, 310 calories 165 g fat and 4, 920 mg sodium) from the Uno Chicago Grill. You can't walk off any of these American restaurants without feeling your pulse quicken and arteries thicken.

Across America, just the names of these monumental dishes are a 'dead' giveaway. Burger King's signature offering is called the Whopper, McDonald has its Big Mac, Jack in the Box offers the Ultimate Cheeseburger and Cheesecake Factory has the Factory Burger. The United States is eating out on an industrial scale.

According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, America's expenditure on fast food has gone up from $6 billion in 1970 to more than $100 billion at the turn of the century. As much as the volume is staggering, what's appalling is the scale of wastage. Apart from the nearly 30 per cent of food Americans discard on their plates, there is wastage at every step of the food supply chain.

Up until a few years back, we could have said Americans can eat themselves to oblivion, how does it matter to us and why should we care. But as we have discovered lately, what happens to America affects us to a great degree. The clogging of American arteries can induce a stroke in India, and indeed, it has in many parts of the world.

Even worse, India is on its way to copying American eating habits as I discover on my visits home. Family brats scoff at being offered narial paani (tender coconut) or chaas (buttermilk) at home, insisting on their fix of sugary "soft drinks". A wide-eyed ingenue shrieked in disbelief when told each can of her poison contained 15 spoons of sugar. "But it's Diet soda, " she wailed. She almost passed out when I told her I once saw my auto mechanic use the same sugary soft drink to dissolve the calcium deposit on my car battery. I kid you not.

The co-relation between our individual and collective health and the nation's economic well-being is not something one can get one's head around easily. But America offers a good example of how a country can become terminally sick through over-indulgence. The US spends the most of any country on healthcare - some 16 per cent of its GDP, more than $2 trillion. Yet it is sicker than many nations which spend less. General Motors once estimated that the healthcare costs of its employees add between $1, 500 and $2, 000 to the sticker price of every automobile it makes.

From Cheesecake Factory putting out a dressed-down menu to McDonald's offering salads and fruits, America is trying to address the problem. The liberal Reed College in Portland has a "scrounger" tradition where students eat untouched discards from others' plates, and "dumpster diving" (sifting through trash to collect safe, edible food thrown away close to sell-by date) is becoming more common. But these are baby steps, often bordering on the frivolous. If we really love someone, we should be asking them to eat healthy and eat less.

chidanand. rajghatta@timesgroup. com

 

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