Living off the Fat of the Land

By Miles, Alice | New Statesman (1996), November 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Living off the Fat of the Land


Miles, Alice, New Statesman (1996)


For a week earlier this month, we watched the drama unfold off the Mexican coast. A ship was stricken and the US navy was despatched to its aid. Helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan were scrambled. The emergency? A fancy American cruise ship had run out of food.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was headline news for days. No food! Omi-gawd! The navy dropped tinned crab, croissants, Spam and Pop-Tarts. Sixty thousand pounds of food in total, according to the host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno: that's roughly 20lbs per passenger for two days. (I am not sure a Pop-Tart can really be called food, but perhaps I'm alone.) As Leno asked: "How fat are those passengers?" Very, is the obvious answer. Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese and, from what I have seen of cruise ship passengers, the proportion is higher still onboard. The industry seems to cater to those too fat and lazy to heft themselves on to a plane. Or perhaps they don't fit into the seats.

While obesity is partly related to wealth in the UK, in the US it cuts through all social groups. Obesity-related health problems account for nearly a tenth of the total US health budget, up from 6.5 per cent in 1998. Overeating is part of the daily diet of American news. Barely an edition of a newspaper seems to be complete without at least a report, a debate or a commentary on the problem.

Unhappy meals

The same edition of the paper in which I first read about the emergency food lift gave frontpage billing to the news that a medical journal was reporting--surprise, surprise--that fat kids become fat teenagers, who become fat adults. There was another story about the city of San Francisco banning fast-food restaurants from giving away free toys with kids' meals that breach nutritional guidelines.

It is not as if Americans are unaware that they have a weight problem. They eat grotesquely unhealthy food--too much of it--and get fat and diabetic; everyone knows it. But they do not seem able to confront it.

After three weeks of travelling around this country, it strikes me that America may now have the worst food in the entire world, at least among countries that actually have food. Whether you can even call much of it food is debatable: great piles of carbs and overcooked steak or the ubiquitous burger. Every suburb of every town is a sprawl of fast-food lights: Wendy's, Subway, McDonald's, Burger King. (Wendy's is being hailed as a health crusader because it has decided to put sea salt--something Americans haven't really discovered yet-instead of table salt on its chips.)

One night in a restaurant in Wyoming, sick of burgers and fries, I steeled my stomach and ordered a lasagne, which the menu claimed would come with spaghetti on the side. I didn't really believe it would come with spaghetti. Yup. A whole helping of spaghetti bolognese, side by side with the lasagne, on the same plate. …

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