September 4, 2002

The New Battle of the Bulge

By: James N. Markels

Quick poll: How many of you think that fast food is healthy? If you’re raising
your hand, you must be Caesar Barber, the one person in America
who somehow didn’t know that eating lots of fast food might make you obese.
The 56 year-old, 272-pound Bronx man is taking McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s,
and Kentucky Fried Chicken to court, explaining, “They
said, ââ?¬Ë?100 percent beef.’ I thought that meant it was good for you.”

While it’s easy to see where poor Mr. Barber missed the clue bus, there
is a steadily rising chorus of complaints from people looking for someone
to blame for America’s fat now that over 60 percent of the adult population
is overweight (according to trusty government standards). After all, it just
couldn’t be the fault of those who did all the eating, right? Just
like the tobacco of yesteryear, everyone is suddenly shocked–shocked!–to find
that fast-food isn’t healthy for you, even though everyone with a brain has
already known this for decades.

Exactly what should be done about this is a matter of contention. Eric Schlosser,
author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the
All-American Meal
, thinks that the rise in obesity matches the rise of
fast-food companies, so the industry needs to change. “Fast food portions
are enormous,” he told CBS News, and thereby encourages people to eat more
than they should. Fast food advertising typically caters to children who,
Schlosser says, are least able to make good eating decisions and are just
developing the eating habits that will guide them later in life. He sees Subway
as having a better approach to fast food, emphasizing the healthy aspect of
the food along with the taste.

John Banzhaf, one of the attorneys that took on the tobacco industry,
is considering lawsuits against the fast food industry in order to force such
restaurants to better disclose the nutritional information about their products.
The industry points out that every fast-food place already posts such information
in their restaurants, but Banzhaf apparently wants
it plastered everywhere. He also thinks it’s bad that supersizing a value
meal is so cheap and that more healthy alternatives aren’t available.

And then you have British nutrition expert Philip James, who thinks that
fat is a societal issue. “You can’t go to the mall without going in your car,”
he told USA Today. Stairways aren’t accessible enough. Streets are
made for cars, not for playing or exercise. “Your schools often serve junk
food and have vending machines selling soft drinks and confectionary in an
attempt to distract children from an appropriate diet,” he adds. His
We need to change our environment. Think smart growth by
Richard Simmons–everything must be arranged in order to encourage people to
get out and walk. “If you don’t have separate cycle tracks,” James chides,
“you’re not a civilized country.” You know, like Britain.

The problem with all of these ideas is that none address the real issue:
What people want to eat. As Schlosser admits, “[The] food tastes great, and
people don’t seem to care about the fat aspect.” In a nation that has plenty
of food at very low prices, Americans have the luxury of putting taste first,
and so they do. They choose to eat fatty foods because they taste better than

And then there’s the convenience and cost of fast food compared to other
choices–its main strengths. If you’re late for a meeting but you need something
to eat, you’d rather grab a burger on the way than have to sit down for a
salad or not eat at all. And fast food meals are cheaper than sit-down meals,
letting families on a budget get more out of their food allowance–a cause
helped when the industry makes portions larger and supersizing
cheaper. Why is it fast food’s fault for fulfilling a demand that consumers
have with products that meet consumer lifestyles? To turn the inquiry around
a bit, why aren’t these experts attacking the health-food industry for not
doing the same? Don’t they deserve more blame for not competing more for fast
food customers?

In any case, Barber’s lawsuit is bound to fail in America
because Americans still believe in personal responsibility. Adults have plenty
of food choices available to them and they already know that fast food is
fattening. Children can soak up all the advertisements they want, but parents
still choose where money is spent. But more importantly, it’s easy to say
this because Barber’s weight doesn’t affect the rest of us. Unless Barber
is also with my insurance company, health costs he incurs from being obese
don’t cost me in higher rates. Of course, this would change drastically under
a universal health care plan.

See, the main danger with universal health care isn’t the one-size-fits-all
inefficiency–that’s just annoying–it’s the fact that it makes everyone’s health
choices affect everyone else. People who get money out of the system by being
unhealthy make the rest of us pay for that cost. If I’m forced to pay for
Barber’s obesity, my incentive is to force him away from McDonald’s. That’s
my money he’s eating!

But of course, I’m not the one doing the forcing; that’s the government’s
job. So you’ll need the government to decide what “healthy” means and then
have people like James in control of our choices–in effect, the way we are
allowed to live must become centrally-planned. If James decides we need to
walk more, then cities will be arranged to enforce it. The USDA’s food pyramid
will be your enforced diet (until they figure out that it’s based on bad science
and makes people fat–oopsie!). Or maybe James will
find our rush-rush schedules to blame, necessitating shorter workweeks and
two-hour lunches. You get the idea. All this so we don’t wind up paying for
Barber’s chub.

A person will only be healthy and stay that way if they do it for themselves
and don’t have others shouldering the costs and responsibilities. That’s the
only healthcare plan that really works. A universal approach will only encourage
us to have the government tell us what to eat and how to live. Hey, being
fat may not be healthy, but at least it’s not illegal.