Cutting Through The Fat

» November 21st, 2014

Food writers behave like a school of fish. The arrange themselves into a tight pack and swerve in unison, seeking safety in numbers. The newest bait is the idea that our food problems are not really food problems. They are poverty problems. I include myself in this school—note a recent column—and I join a pool of writers including Bittman and Tracie McMillian in highlighting the pressure of poverty on food choices.

And why not? There’s no doubt there’s a good reason to pursue the connection between poverty and poor eating habits. The correlation is clear and the reasons for the correlation fairly obvious, involving as it does matters of access, affordability, education, and—perhaps less obviously—a factor noted by both me and McMillian (see links above): the psychological consequences of scarcity.

That said, something about this emphasis makes me a little uncomfortable. The reason for this discomfort was recently clarified for me when I encountered the above menu in a trendy new Austin eating establishment. Click it and you’ll see that these meals are fancy. But they’re also weighed down with loads of carefully sourced but, still, unhealthy ingredients. The portion sizes, moreover, judging from the dishes being hauled out of the kitchen, were huge.  Is there, I wondered, that much of a difference between a McDonald’s menu and this one? Every plate seemed to me to far outweigh (literally) my ideal meal as a teenager: Big Mac, shake, and fries.

By the looks of the place, the comparison might seem absurd. This is an upscale, architecturally-savvy lunch spot. Business casual dominated. Elegant women drank chardonnay. As I looked closer, though, I noticed that, while there were no morbidly obese people in the place, at least 2/3 of the people in the restaurant were carrying extra weight, in some cases a lot. Take away the sheen of sophistication, strip these well-heeled lunch goers bare, and you’d pretty much have a naked reflection of our national struggle to stay fit.

Heavy and unhealthy high-end food often gets a pass when the obesity-poverty card is played. I don’t think it should. The overweight people in this restaurant—it’s called St. Phillip for those who care (good veganized pie)—were overweight in the same way that the low-income consumers of fast food are overweight. Fat is fat and flesh is flesh. Should the fact that the St. Phillip’s crowd was better dressed, had top-notch health care, and can get thee to a fat farm if matters get out of hand exclude them from our meta-analysis of poor eating habits?

I don’t think it should.  I’m not saying anyone should ditch the correlation between obesity and poverty, but I am saying we need to remember that as much as poverty leads to obesity, wealth can cover it up pretty well. Both a Big Mac and a $20 plate of homemade gourmet mac-n-cheese have the same impact on your body, at the day’s end.

6 Responses to Cutting Through The Fat

  1. Tina Eden says:

    Interesting take on unhealthy eating regardless of income level. If viewed through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy, a lot of people are spending a lot of time on the first level (physiological), and gaining a lot of weight. It seems as if we’re not eating to live, but living to eat.

  2. Sabby16 says:

    I’ve been waiting for this article just always in the back of my mind what your take on the whole obesity thing was. I think you nailed it when you said that wealth can cover up the problems. I think also the obesity poverty link is clear but its an issue with many facets. While I agree that personal responsibility for health and well being should to some degree be the norm. I don’t buy into the comments like the one made by the person quoted in your august article. To say its completely a personal problem and to not acknowledge the wider issues is just another way to shame people the majority who are poor which shaming always comes with the poverty package. This is well placed and well timed.

  3. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    Always so observant and perceptive!! I too have noted a similar situation in the more attractive eating spots in LA. Most everyone has about a good 15-20lbs of excess fat on their somewhat better dressed bodies ( though even in fine restaurants most males dress like the homeless!!-but that’s another gripe of mine!!). The pretty skinny girls hoping to have a film career stay slender as do the ‘sportive’ females! Meanwhile, I’m 5’7″ and 107 lbs!!! and feel good!

  4. John T. Maher says:

    Capitalism collapses time and places a premium upon food processed by others as a form of instant gratification. The more food is processed and commodified, the more its components are hidden. There is also a cultural disconnect from food, as the slow food people know well, and this results in the inability of human subjects to actually know how to cook anything from scratch. Sadly morbid obesity has become acceptable and humans are defensive about their appearance and consider it a right of sorts. I live near lots of really obese humans and fail to appreciate their inner beauty.

    Lots of fat humans in Texas and everywhere else among the middle class, but probably fewer statistically morbidly obese humans. Same reasons.

    So I disagree with the politics behind Sabby 16′s comment as pertains to this article although others do equate poverty with obesity. Is that unethical to say poor humans (ie those with less material wealth) are statistically fatter? Who cares about the affect of shame?

    Maslow’s hierarchy is questionable as to ranking order and I suspect that other factors such as emotional imbalance and prioritization of time to shift food processing to others as well as cultural needs to be around humans affect the “need” to eat to obesity.

    Glad ELF not obese.

  5. I’ve been reading hundreds of books and articles for my new book (on weight loss), and this article is one of the best. Thanks! Amy Farrell’s book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture makes a highly persuasive that Americans have always disproportionately fat shamed poor, non-white, female and other disempowered groups.

  6. Marc Bedner says:

    Foodies obsessed with their own health and oblivious to the plight of animals can now join ex-vegan locavore deer hunters:

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