HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

The Fat Police: A New Show on Cable

Tune in to The Fat Police, a sizzling new show. Watch the Fat Police ferret out the villains who make us fat; watch, undercover, the villains stuffing food down our throat; cheer as the Fat Police battle the fat-mongers, aka Fast Food Restaurants (FFR).

The stories are ripped from headlines. Two years ago the Los Angeles City Council passed a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants within a 32-square mile grid; more recently a council member proposed a quarter-mile “free zone” between any new fast food restaurant and an existing one. In Prince Georges County officials discussed banning new fast food restaurants. A television ad shows a corpse, clutching a hamburger, with the slogan “I was lovin’ it,” as an epitaph.

The show will succeed. After all, we Americans are fat, getting fatter. How consoling to identify, then skewer, the villain behind our obesity!

But how dangerously misguided, to vilify FFR without a trial!

In the tradition of courtroom television, let me defend this alleged perp.

First, the nomenclature “fast food” is bewildering. Does “fast” refer to preparation time? Consider the Fastest Foods: raw fruits and vegetables (they are even faster if you don’t peel them). Canned beans. Nuts. In general, the Fastest Foods tend to be unprocessed, nutritious, cheap. In contrast, most Slow Foods take a lot of time. Think spaghetti Bolognese, cheesecake, apple crisp. Any would-be Julia Child can attest: these are labor-intensive. Plus high in calories, fat and cost.

Of course, some Slow Foods (lentil soup) are nutritious; and some Fast Foods (raw oysters) are probably not — more proof that preparation time is a strange way to rate food. In fact, the traditional fare of FFR — fried chicken, fried potatoes, onion rings — takes considerable preparation time.

Perhaps the “fast” refers to the time it takes a customer to order and be served. True to their commercials, FFR are fast, and cheap. You can order a super-duper special, be served, eat and leave in half the time it takes Fat Cats (literally and figuratively) dining at their favorite steakhouses to order t-bones with heavily creamed spinach. Yet no official is proposing to limit the expansion of steakhouses.

Maybe “fast” is a misnomer, and the villain is processed food: chips, cookies, et al. If so, FFR are not the main fat-mongers: the supermarkets are. Perhaps the Fat Police should ban the sale of processed food. Maybe a food-burning rampage, like the book-burnings of not-so-long-ago.

The Fat Police liken their battle to the fight against cigarettes — a comparison that any cable attorney could dismiss. Nobody — not even tobacco executives — has claimed a benefit for cigarettes. Just the reverse: cigarettes are carcinogenic. FFR, in contrast, serve food, essential for life. Some FFR fare may be low in nutrients, high in fat, but the varied menus allow choice. Consider pizza. Tomato sauce, cheese, and bread-dough fit somewhere in a dietitian’s pyramid. Does pepperoni lower the nutritive value? Does spinach boost the value? To be fair, the Fat Police would have to grade each offering and quash accordingly — a daunting task.

A free marketplace has brought us FFR. Indeed, throughout the world, as countries move up the economic ladder, FFR sprout. They may be one of the biggest American exports (admittedly, to the dismay of many people). Uncle Sam has hesitated to regulate private sector industries unless they pose a danger to the public (e.g., we impose environmental restrictions to protect the air and water). To say that FFR are harming us is specious: we choose what we eat. If more of us embraced tofu, carrots and beans, the FFR would serve them.

We know what we should eat. We just don’t do it. Shutting down an industry won’t make us thin. To find the villain behind our girth, look no further than the mirror.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2010

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