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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — June 15 — Viewpoint

Illusions of Obesity

My nephew, a college sophomore with a healthy appetite that draws curious stares even in a family not known to be shy at the dinner table, is one of those who have seen “Super Size Me.” That’s the documentary film about one person’s 30-day, all McDonald’s all the time exercise in dietary self-abuse. The indie flick has by early June rung $6.2 million in tickets sales, meaning that a lot of people are paying to view the comic antics of an arrested-development appetite run amok.

As have many others who have viewed the film, the nephew, a lean athletic type with a competitive streak that’s especially apparent in rugby and water polo, thoroughly enjoyed watching a compulsive overeater cram in 5,000 calories a day while doing nothing more physically challenging than pulling out his wallet and providing commentary about the evil that lies beneath a bun. But unlike most other viewers—whose newly discovered sense of revulsion makes theater lobbies sound like church revival camps, with these worshipers swearing off Big Fast Food—he did something quaintly old-fashioned after the closing credits. He took his companion out for a hamburger. She protested at first but recovered in time to eat when the food arrived.

Restaurants provide a boatload of alternate menu items that match nearly any diet’s needs.

His reaction to the film—and indeed to the whole obesity debate—offers glimmers of hope for a sane future, a possibility that not everyone automatically buys the theory that restaurants, food manufacturers and deviously crafted advertising messages all conspire to create a fatland of food addicts.

Statistics abound about the widening girth of the nation, painting a picture of victims who require admonishments and legislation instead of exercise and self-motivation to keep extra pounds in check.

Characteristic of much of the media coverage of obesity in America are a lack of original thinking and an unwillingness to question force-fed data that says two of three Americans are overweight, with the incidence growing at a disturbing rate.

Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, a researcher at The Rockefeller University in New York City, has dared to differ, bringing to the table an opposing view that introduces new discussion points to the topic. National data, says Friedman, do not show a population that is marching in lockstep toward morbid obesity. Statistics instead point only to very fat persons getting fatter while thinner people tend to remain slim—no more than six or seven pounds heavier, on average, than in 1991.

Earlier this month, he described the obesity debate to a New York Times reporter as “so political, so rife with misinformation and disinformation.”

It is complicated, as Dr. Friedman suggests, a hotbed of opposing viewpoints and agendas, many of which have set the foodservice industry as a target.

Restaurants have provided a boatload of choices, supplying alternate menu items that match nearly any diet’s needs. A responsive industry, coupled with the type of intellectual rigor that helps properly align, might put a different spin on obesity in America. Maybe it’s not quite what it appears to be, but instead an illusion that has been as carefully staged as a movie.


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