If you have an internet connection and friends you've probably been sent a "Hey look at this!" email regarding the blog-in-pictures This is Why You're Fat. Readers send in pics of hilariously high-calorie foods that no sentient person would ever eat, ostensibly to help explain why Americans are so goddamn fat. Yes, it's funny. Limited in range, but funny. I mean, 99% of the content repeats one of these themes:

1. Like normal food, only bigger
2. (Thing that isn't healthy) + (bacon)
3. (Thing that isn't healthy) + (gravy or cheese)
4. One unhealthy food stuffed inside another
5. An enormous number of things simply piled atop one another (plus gravy)

While the website is both funny and probably correct to some extent, I have a much better theory about why we're fat. We've become food crazed, and it's a relatively recent development. Let me explain what I mean.

I saw a fabulously interesting interview with Wolfgang Puck several years ago on a network TV show and he recounted a story of when he moved to L.A. in the 70s. He'd go to a club and try to talk to a woman, and he said when they asked what he did for a living he'd either lie about it or admit that he was a chef and the conversation would be over. It was a shit profession for people who were either pretentious French assholes or unemployable borderline-criminal types. And now, Puck told the host, you're interviewing me on national TV. Being a chef went from one step above being a child molester to being a high-glamour profession.

There is a network devoted to 24-hour food/cooking related programming. Dozens of other cable networks (Discovery, Bravo, etc.) have food shows. The Culinary Institute of America now includes media training – how to give an interview, how to court the press, and so on – in its curriculum. Anthony Bourdain is wildly famous for writing a book about how shitty it is to work in restaurants. Enormous stores sell nothing but cookwares most of us would never use. People spend $1200 on sets of knives. High-end restaurants and grocers – some of which will mail exotic ingredients to your door – are doing well even in a horrible economy as people shell out per-ounce prices for spices and cheese that were formerly associated only with heroin. We are absolutely food loco as a nation.

Why? There are a lot of explanations – diet and kitchenware as status symbols, better education about the downsides of processed food, etc. – but I favor the following one. First Americans had to accept that drinking was bad for them. No more three martini lunches. Then they found out that smoking was a killer, so the educated middle class shunned that too. Then the 1980s arrived and it turned out that indiscriminate sexual activity could end up killing you, so the bourgeois who spent the 70s doing blow and nailing everyone in sight had to put a stop to that. Then we started hacking away at the middle class lifestyle – salaries stopped going up, paid time off became a thing of the past, and many people saw their standard of living collapse – so people couldn't enjoy escaping on vacations or trips to the lake with their boat. In short, everything Americans used for sensory pleasure has been taken away (although not from the poor; we wanted to make sure we could still market the cigarettes and booze to someone, and who really cares if they die of AIDS?)

Food is what's left. We are fat because we use food as an escape. The pleasure we might have once had from functional alcoholism, chain smoking, or wild partying has left us with endless sublimated desires for physical pleasure and nowhere to satisfy them. So we eat. We eat and look for ever more exciting sensory experiences from our food. We not only shovel down more food to fill the void but we're constantly looking for more indulgent things to eat. If you're ever in Chicago, go wait in line at Hot Doug's some afternoon and watch dozens of hipsters and young professionals – people who have two or three degrees apiece – wait in a lengthy line to eat french fries cooked in rendered duck fat and a hot dog covered with 1000 calories of foie gras. Then you'll see what I mean.

That's my theory, anyway. The bacon-laden peanut brittle isn't helping either, admittedly.

42 thoughts on “NPF: THIS IS WHY YOU'RE FAT”

  • There's something to that, but I thought all that foodie/Food Network/arugula-and-artisan-tomatoes stuff was aimed at people who weren't eating 4000 calories in one sitting (on the other hand, Paula Deen).

  • Broaden it a bit: meth and marijuana have replaced martinis and Miltowns in Middle America. Look at Pharma as a growth industry. (The first Rx ads I saw in mags and on TV was for Claritin, and I thought: advertising prescription drugs?) Note the boom in designer booze, from domestic tequila to French vodka. Go to the beverage aisle and wait for someone to bitch because they don't have bottled sugar-free raspberry green tea made with Splenda instead of Aspartame (among the ninety-seven other flavors.)

    We are insecure and immature. We are bent on quick fixes and feeling good. Overindulgence of all kinds, especially in food and drugs, is retail therapy and self-medication in one.

  • You are correct in all you say, but the proliferation of cooking shows is all a part of the general cataclysmic dumbing down of television.

    It is wholly in the interests of the military/industrial/PR complex that people be just smart enough to do their jobs, but no smarter. Hence television filled with intelligent documentaries, clever satire and humour, well scripted drama, incisive current affairs journalism, and comprehensive unbiased news programmes is not really in it's interest.

    So, umm, what can they fill 24/7 television with that won't cause unnecessary bouts of distressing thought in viewers?

    Answer – cooking shows! The intellectual equivalent of mowing the lawn, or bolting together a Ford starter motor on an assembly line, or gardening.

    One of the results of this is a kind of food porn of the sort you are talking about.

  • I recently asked my students, in aid of illustrating Freud's concept of sublimation, "Why do you think Americans are so fat? Why do we eat beyond our bodily needs?" I was preparing to launch into the notion of displaced libido, etc.–but one of my students beat me to it: "Because we're miserable." There was universal consensus that this was so, particularly from the heavier students. I left class that day delighted that they'd understood, and devastated that they'd understood so *easily.*

  • Cooking, good cooking, requires a bit more skill than mowing a lawn. Many good cooks I have known are also artists with other media. This doesn't mean that I disagree with the basic premise of that comment or the post in general. Food is something we can all agree on (not specific foods, but the generic "good food"), and thus becomes the lowest common denominator.

    There is no one cause of our fatness, but several. Being miserable, immature, and insecure are big factors. Personally, I blame high fructose corn syrup and the abundance of sugar in everything. My new dietary guidelines call for only 25g of sugar per day. I have not met that guideline once yet. Wednesday, I had Pop Tarts, and that is 33g of sugar per pastry…

  • I think another reason that food is in is that it caters to the pretentious asshole market. Now not only do I have to put up with shitbirds strumming their guitars in every city park and puffed- up little pricks declaiming a load of crap at suck- ass poetry slams, now I hear every two- bit hash slinger bullshitting about the " art of food" .
    Grrrrrrrr!!! Hulk smash!!!

  • That list should have:

    6) batter-coated deep-fried shit ~ remember Elvis!

    As for fat America, I've observed that obesity is a demonstrator of neuroticism, often as sexual hysteria. How ironic that the war- mongers are worrying themselves to death, as well as everybody else.

  • Actually, I think of the Food Network not as food porn, but just porn. Americans treat cooking like they treat sex; skilled professionals doing stuff on a screen that they would never be done in the home.

  • Well, I'm still sticking with functioning alchaholic…….and as an ex-line cook I can assure you the industry is still chock-a-block full of degenerates and criminals, thank you very much!

  • I think food and being fat is the latest Puritan vice. You don't have to go far down here in MS to see that all the "fun" has been completely squeezed out of everyday Americans' lives. It's hard to go out drinking, because there's no safe way to find transportation. Bars close early, many counties are dry, blue laws, etc. Marijuana and other drugs have been more and more penalized and criminalized. And just possession can get you locked in penitentiary and all your assets seized. Smoking used to be the last refuge of the poor and middle-class, but that becomes harder and harder to do. High taxes, outright bans, even criminalization in some ways. So what's the non-jetsetter to do? Eat like a MF. And since churches make sure that nothing fun is allowed, and yet they serve cheese-laden casseroles as communion wafers every Sunday, it's the only "respectable" fun left.

  • I'm always mystified when the women in my life conjure great meals from nothing. They extract meaning from recipes that to me are as meaningless as Ezra Pound poetry. They read cookbooks and watch food shows, not because they're dumbed down, rather because it's an intellectual pleasure. They can mentally connect print on a page with the sensory pleasures of a meal that will be set on the table. When they watch a food show, they enjoy the sprinkling of the flour at the beginning of the show because they can anticipate the resolution to come, much like I enjoy picking up clues early on when I read a mystery.
    Everyone should spend time in south Louisiana, where I grew up. Food doesn't have to be porn. It can be as wonderful as making love.

  • Fat Americans: It's not simply the over-proliferation of food shows and our food obsession, it's the over-proliferation of food availability and the commercials that particular biz has spawned. Most fast food is now a 24/7 business. There are food joints everywhere, open all the time. And if you want to sit down and watch nighttime network TV? You are bombarded with food commercials from McD's, Wendy's, Hardees, KFC, Applebees, Red Lobster, etc. ad nauseum (literally). The poor also eat cheap (read: fattening) and so that's why you see a larger number of obese people in poorer areas of the country (read: midwest) and less on the coasts (think of LA's obession with perfect bodies).

    Go to any midwestern grocery store (say, Walmart for instance) and see what is in the carts of obese people. You'll see lots of pre-prepared foods, bags of chips, gallons of soda and a few cheap desserts. It costs far more to eat healthy and make things from scratch. These people may watch chefs preparing gourmet foods on TV, but I guarantee that they do not eat them at home. They eat what is shown during commercial breaks.

  • Beartrap makes an excellent point but it isn't inconsistent with the original post. The reason that eating can be taken to such extremes in order to fill a void is because there is something really beautiful and natural about creating something nourishing and delectable that fires all of the right sensory neurons from something that nature has provided. It can be really beautiful and fulfilling, but we have taken that to such an extreme that it has become perverted and destructive. One of the problems with food as an addiction though is that you can't simply cut it cold turkey or avoid it altogether. (This is a point that has also been made repeatedly elsewhere but is worth repeating.) If you want to quit smoking or drinking, you can just quit it all together and avoid places where it might be prevelant. I suppose the same could be true for sex, though it would be hard if you were in a relationship. But food we must have in some dose to survive, and it is absolutely f*ing everywhere, it is really hard to name one single location where you can find food at least in vending machine form, so it will always be a beast to be managed rather than slain.

  • I don't disagree with Ed on this, but I do think there is an additional factor. If Ed is talking Nuture, then I will talk Nature.

    I come at this from a more evolutionary biology perspective… humans, in general are programmed to eat whatever they can, whenever they can as quickly as they can for the following reasons:

    1.) As recently as a couple hundred years ago, most breeding humans had no idea when their next meal was going to be. If there was food to be eaten, you had better dig in, because we had no idea if the rats, rain or royalty were going to come take it.

    2.) Food manufacturers KNOW that people will prefer to eat foods loaded with fats and salts. You know why foods made with butter, salt, cream and ten tons of other food that is bad for us taste good? Because our bodies (which closely reflect people who lived 15 generations b/c evolution is slow) need salt and need fat to work properly. We are designed (not in the intelligent design sense) to seek out that which our body needs – be it sunshine (think SAD), water (think thirst), sex (duh) and food…

    The problem is, our bodies don't need the copious amounts we shovel in to them on a daily basis.

  • I'm in agreement with most of what you said, but will disagree about people who are truly into cooking. One of the discoveries made by the folks involved with one of the most disgusting shows on television, Biggest Loser, was that teaching people how to relate to food, i.e., cook it themselves, helped them both lose weight and keep it off. If you're preparing the food yourself, you know what's in it, you know what a normal serving is, and you appreciate the textures and flavors more because you're actually paying attention to what you're eating. You would think that the poor, who have the least disposable income to spend on food, would do the most from scratch cooking, but unfortunately they're usually also the people with the least amount of time available to spend in the kitchen. Hence, the Walmart carts full of generic Mac and Cheese, hamburger helper, ramen noodles, and store brand soda (it's cheaper than milk).

    High dollar hot dogs, on the other hand, consumed in the presence of other idiots paying way too much money for an over-hyped product, are clearly functioning as conspicuous consumption to establish an identity as a person with money to burn.

  • I think most of you (including Ed) are coming from far too pampered and privileged a perspective in your comments. We eat a lot because food is cheap. Blame "value added" processed foods. Blame Earl Butz.

    To add to BK's point, there's good evidence that humanity almost became extinct some 70,000 years ago (see Toba catastrophe theory). Fatties, the ones that could efficiently store up the meager food sources, survived. Skinnies did not.

    There is also the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to consider. As hunter/gatherers, we did quite well on fish, meat, fat and the occasional root vegetable and grains.

    We forget that modern fruits and vegetables are exactly that – modern. It's only been very recently that a healthy vegetarian diet has been available, as opposed to the luxury it was in the past. For the greater par tof the past 10,000 years, if you wanted wanted to be big, strong, and smart, with a well-fed brain and strong bones, meat was about your only option.

    The rise of government and agricultural stunted the majority of us in both stature and brain size. High concentration/calorie food restrictions to the upper classes was probably the most odious and awful form of dictatorship you can envision.

  • There are many issues at play as to the reason Americans are getting fatter. I personally have experienced a significant weight gain due to stress and menopause. I consider myself a foodie and strive to eat healthy everyday. I shun fast food as to me it is gross. From everything that I have read about weight gain aside from overeating stress can bring on weight gain. Americans live under a great amount of stress these days so food becomes a comfort. The answer is activity and eating less calories. As for the poor, I saw a program about this very thing. It was cheaper for them to go to any fast food place and eat from the 99cent menu than it was to buy food. I do not know if I agree but this was the premise from a show about obesity in America.

  • As far as drinking and smoking go, it isn't just that they're bad for you. If "bad for you" was relevant to most people Dunkin Donuts would not still be in business and foods containing trans fats would not be on store shelves. It's that there are a lot of laws and social mores in place which make it prohibitive to drink and smoke. With unemployment at 10 percent you don't want your boss to see you tipsy, so don't take that three martini lunch. Don't drink and drive, or you'll get a DUI arrest and get dropped from your insurance policy. Virginia and South Carolina recently passed laws regarding indoor smoking at commercial restaurants. And if you tax the vices prohibitively enough, people will stop spending money on them (I recently saw a blurb which said that the Twilight cast members who were smokers quit while filming their third installment in Vancouver, except for the two main principals, because Canadian taxes on cigarettes nearly double the cost from the base price).

  • Entomologista says:

    You are correct in all you say, but the proliferation of cooking shows is all a part of the general cataclysmic dumbing down of television.

    What on earth are you talking about? Do you honestly think TV now is worse than TV previously? There is more TV now, as in more shows and more channels. So previously there was only Dynasty. But now there is probably a channel dedicated to reruns of Dynasty and also a channel for shows like Ow! My Balls!. But the really good TV is much, much, much better than it used to be. Mad Men, enough said.

  • "What on earth are you talking about? Do you honestly think TV now is worse than TV previously? There is more TV now, as in more shows and more channels. So previously there was only Dynasty. But now there is probably a channel dedicated to reruns of Dynasty and also a channel for shows like Ow! My Balls!. But the really good TV is much, much, much better than it used to be. Mad Men, enough said."

    Fully agree. Nowadays we have good quality programming like the History Channel and all-music cable channels with classical music running 24/7. Granted, those with low-brow preferences may not actually be WATCHING these, but at least they are available.

    Also, where I said that South Carolina recently passed anti-smoking statutes, I meant North Carolina. My bad.

  • "Perhaps I should proofread before submitting."

    Well sure, if you want to be kicked out of the Kool Kommentators' Klub.

    Also, I'll just toss in some silly thumb-nail psych:
    Some years back, it was brought to my attention that I was actually showing mild signs of addictive behavior w/ regard to computer games. When I started paying attention to it, it gradually became clear to me that what the games were giving me was a sense of control over things, and that the less choice I had over anything important in my life, the more I found myself doing classic druggie behavior with games. I've had numerous periods to test this association and it holds up strongly over the past several decades. I would expect that to also be a contributing factor in modern obesity, although I suspect that addictive behavior is a pretty personal thing – not all of us are as weak-willed as the average Imperial Trooper.

  • Also,

    "masturbation still seems safe to me."

    apart from the hair and the blindness?

    And I should point out that my tastes are as high-brow as they come (I'll match my knowledge of the lesser composers of the Bohemian Middle Baroque up against anybody's! You heard me!), but I never miss an episode of "Ow! My Balls!". It's a man thing. You wouldn't understand…

  • i saw an interview a few years ago as well on this topic but it talked about differences in food as a larger symptom of social class differentiation. for instance, back in the time of the robber barons, having a huge belly was a sign of ostentatious wealth. there are hilarious black and white pictures from that period of barely mobile "gentleman" and titans of industry sitting around a groaning board. but now that calories and cheap, and everyone can have a belly, the new "fashion" is fitness. Ask yourself whether it's more expensive to eat in a healthy way or a totally unhealthy way? I'm happy to take criticism of the dichotomy, but at the far extremes, you have the vile dollar menu contrasted against whole foods, two sort of comical polar opposites. The point is the same as made in that brilliant Dr. Seuss book about the star bellied sneetches: when anyone can have the mark of distinction, there's nothing to separate people some from others.

  • It's MUCH more expensive to eat healthy, organic, fresh food. The only way the huge conglomerates (Monsanto, Beatrice, etc., which control and make the pre-processed foods ) can compete with real food is to make them incredibly cheap (which equals incredibly full of salt, sugar and fat). Your basic low-income Walmart shopper is much less lean than someone shopping at Joe's Whole Foods because they cannot afford to shop there.

    Last year, 60 Minutes did a segment on Alice Waters, the queen of fresh, organic whole foods. In my opinion, this woman was incredibly smug and clueless because she kept saying how important it was to get fresh, whole foods and how she'd like to transform the country into a place that eats better and educates itself. Well, sure, if we all lived in California and had a lovely climate like she does, we'd all be eating the fresh foods that she eats. However, I'm not sure how to get fresh, locally grown vegetables in Minnesota in the middle of winter. It's nice that she wants that for us all, but it's not anywhere close to a plausible reality. It's this kind of thinking that negates thinking about the realities of those in poverty in all areas of the country and the morbid obesity that goes hand in hand with their economies.

  • I think Johnnyboy is right, but it's not just a rich/poor divide, it's a class thing, too. Whenever I come to America (admittedly rarely going beyond New York), I'm astonished at the huge numbers of obese people I see on the subways and buses but I never find such fatties in the chic restaurants, galleries, bars. The lower classes eat crap, the upper classes are careful of food, drink, fitness. It's not only money, it's mentality.

    Admit you've got an un-American class problem and you might find a way to solve it.

  • Years ago. someone made a film about how it was impossible to get sufficient nutrition on food stamps, since one could only afford high-sugar, high fat crap. It was politicians vs. welfare mothers on the welfare budget for a month.

    Most of the politicians failed, but not our guy in Oregon; he had been poor in college and knew that legumes are cheap, in-season vegetables are cheap, eggs are a good source of protein, and so on. The welfare mom had been having a junk-food blowout on the first of the month and living on ramen the rest of the time. No one had ever taught her this. "That's not food, it's just ingredients."

    Is ours the only country dying of obesity and malnutrition at the same time?

  • Just stumbled into this site with your Ayn Rand evisceration. I spent the next couple hours enjoying your fierce, intelligent, progressive arguments. That won my respect.

    But your apologetics on gin and this wonderful little existential deconstruction – that won my love.

    You just picked up a new daily reader. :)

  • Ed,

    I've been reading your blog lately. Not sure how to email you or I would have, but I guess this works just as well. At my university, the University of Oregon, it has recently come to the student body's attention that a "free speech group" founded by a professor emeritus meets weekly in our student union. Sounds legit, right? Oh wait, they're full of neonazis and fascists who think the Hitler salute is acceptable and Jews, homosexuals, "brown people" and feminists are responsible for all the world's ills. Pacifica Forum is their name. They've got a Wikipedia page, and you can browse the articles at, or read the account of their meeting friday at Iunno if you really care about fascists in a small municipality on the West Coast, but I figured I'd post it.

  • A thought on people lining up for fancy hot dogs and such. There is the Herd Instinct to consider. If people see a line going around the block from a hot dog place, well it just has to be good and everybody wants some.

    Also all the cheap food is very fattening.

  • I am regularly amused to see the same content pop up on both the This Is Why You're Fat blog and the Pretty Foods blog.

  • actually I found some great recipes on This is Why You're Fat that I'm going to make for my next party (Twinkie sushi, specifically).

  • Shell Goddamnit says:

    Part of the problem is "Food As Entertainment" and "Eating As A Response to Advertising" of course.

  • Shell Goddamnit says:

    Plus the complete lack of exercise for so many people. Suburban living – scuttling from the house to the car to the office & back again – is not healthy. TWO of the reasons why we are so fat…

  • During my "summer vacation" (I.E. layoff) I decided to see if I could live off of what my (non Supermarket) Wal-mart sold as food. From my Weight Watchers days I had developed a taste for low fat, whole wheat, chicken (or preferably fish) vs red meat, vegetables, etc. Almost none of that was available. The best I could do was low-fiber brown bread and limited varieties of baked beans. Otherwise It would be packaged food and full-fat bratwurst. I lasted a few weeks on this "diet" and decided it was worth paying more for healthy food even if it meant that I'd run out of money a few weeks earlier than if I stuck to Wal-mart. If the government wants to do something about obesity, there would be tax on cheap unhealthy food and subsidies (i.e. lower prices) for healthy food.

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