Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Obesity in America

Someone should nominate Frank Bruni for the Thomas Friedman Bad Writing award.

Here’s how Bruni opened his last column:

I was steering my cart through Costco the other day, wondering whether to waddle to the aisle where they sell cashews by the quarter-ton or to the one with thousand-piece packs of chicken thighs, when an epiphany pierced the fog of my gluttony.

Apparently, the New York Times does not have editors any more. You might overlook the silly reference to a “quarter-ton” of cashews or to the “thousand-piece packs of chicken thighs” and call it a failed attempt to be clever.

But, going from steering to waddling is to mix a metaphor. If that did not suffice to kill your appetite,  Bruni closed his paragraph with a perfectly idiotic metaphoric mélange: “an epiphany pierced the fog of my gluttony.”

Since Bruni is going to make Costco emblematic of America’s sin of gluttony, why would he call himself a glutton? As a former restaurant critic, Bruni is certainly an epicure, but, by the evidence of his picture, he is not a glutton. I cannot imagine why Bruni’s gluttony is fog-like, and you can't either.

For the record, gluttony counts among the seven deadly sins. Blaming it on Costco or on America counts as an evasion of responsibility.

You may not have noticed, but Bruni is trying to make a serious point. He is saying that Costco, like other big box stores, is contributing to America’s obesity problem by offering larger sizes of whatever it sells.

Here is what Bruni calls an epiphany:

Costco as much as anything else is why the land of the free and the home of the brave is also the trough of the tub o’ lard, our exceptionalism measurable by not only our G.D.P. but also our B.M.I. That’s body mass index, and our bodies are indeed massive.

More than anything, this sentence shows that Bruni should never, ever try to be witty.

Presumably, Bruni has discovered the cause of America’s obesity epidemic:

I don’t blame Costco per se. I blame what it represents: an American obsession with size, with quantity, that manifests itself as surely in supermarkets and restaurants as it does on our highways. We drive minivans and sport utility vehicles; we rip into veritable feed bags of potato chips and wedge our steroidal Thanksgiving turkeys into refrigerators more capacious than some European cars. This doesn’t redound to our benefit.

As I said, Bruni does not blame the gluttons. In fact, he happily calls himself one of them. He does not blame Costco, even as he is blaming Costco. He blames America because America is obsessed with bigness. And I thought it was only Texans who were obsessed with bigness.

By making a mockery of American exceptionalism Bruni is following the path taken by both President Obama and, more recently, by Vladimir Putin.

Bruni fails to notice that our dear leader, President Obama has been doing everything in his power to make us smaller. In that he has had some considerable success. Around the world people think less of America than they had in the past. Does Bruni think that Obama going to put Costco out of business?

If anything, America is suffering from waning national pride. In fact, America's concern for bigness might well be a symptom of a loss of pride.

As for Thanksgiving, let’s stipulate that it happens once a year. And let’s understand that indulging in a feast once a year does not, in and of itself, make you morbidly obese.

As for what Bruni clumsily calls Costco’s “bloated grandeur” he himself has become so drunk on his insight that he missed the obvious. People shop at Costco because it’s cheap. In fact, it’s very cheap.

Gluttony may be a sin, but thrift is not. Unless Bruni knows how Costco shoppers consume their victuals he does not know whether they, in particular, are gluttonous or thrifty.

Besides, people who buy foodstuffs in large quantities economize on the time it takes to shop.

Bruni misses the obvious point: people shop at Costco because they are thrifty. The same applies to WalMart, which does not, to my knowledge sell forty-pound boxes of cereal.

James Taranto explained Bruni’s error:

After all, those massive packages of nuts or chicken aren’t portions but ingredients, sold in bulk for storage and gradual use.

No human being, not even a human family is crazy enough to buy a thousand or even a hundred chicken thighs and eat them all at once.

As Taranto noted, Bruni, a former restaurant critic, must eat most of his meals in restaurants. He has no idea about portion size and economizing on food intake.

But still, the question of America’s obesity epidemic remains.

I would suggest that Americans overeat because they are trying to use food to overcome the sense of being diminished.

Clearly, America is losing status and standing in the world. The loss of pride feels like a demotion and causes stress.
Actually, schoolteachers and other educators, to say nothing of the media have been peddling this message for decades now. Children today are not taught to be proud of their country. They are taught to feel guilty for all of the harm it has inflicted. They are taught to find fault in every American achievement.

Since pride is a group feeling, diminishing group pride will diminish individual pride.

The demoralizing and depressing teaching is covered over by an obsessive interest in promoting false pride, that is, self-esteem.

You are allowed to speak no good of America. You are not allowed to feel pride in your country, lest someone else feel bad about their country.

But then, everything you do must be counted as a success contributing to your own personal self-esteem. You might say that false pride is better than no pride, but when you have nothing but false pride you will not know why you are feeling depressed and will not be able to address it effectively.

They might treat it with Prozac but they might also try to treat it with junk food.

Robert Sapolsky recently explained that much of America’s obesity problem lies in the fact that we eat when we are not hungry. We eat when we feel unloved and we eat when we feel stressed.

He wrote:

One of the best-understood examples of non-nutritive eating is the fact that stress tends to make us eat more. It makes sense psychologically, in that the people most prone to stress eating are those most actively restricting food intake the rest of the time: When the going gets tough and they need to be nice to themselves, this is how they ease up. They prefer to eat fats and carbs.


Lastango said...

Bruni says our obesity comes from skewed values. His larded writing may have the same origin. As I waddled through his piled-high prose, I got the sense he was being steered by a compulsion to strut his lefty cred.

Coastal progressives love to celebrate how they are not like other men. They give each other an intellectual high-five by proclaiming their greenness, or their ability to detect racism and other isms where lesser mortals fear to deconstruct. They have a natural right to rule because they're so much smarter, so much more perceptive than the rest of us. Of the low-hanging food for this instant camaraderie, none is heaped higher than their consumption habits. Let one lefty proclaim she doesn't shop at Wal-Mart, and the rest rush to gorge themselves at the same trough. Soon the air is filled with grunting about Costco, McDonald's, and other dives frequented by the fat, stinky, gun-owning, pickup-driving Americans these Best & Brightest spend their lives avoiding.

Being of the progressive tribe, Bruni just couldn't help himself. So he helped himself to a discounted opportunity to proclaim his own specialness, to shout to Times readers, "I'm one of you!". He knows in his gut they will answer that dinner gong for a communal feast of their own glorious ascendency. Smugness is always on sale by the Bushel where Bruni works. Scarfing and defecting its crummy carbs is what lazy, turgid writers and their readers do to mark the territory of their collectivist plantation.

flynful said...

My thought is that the focus on the causes of obesity, especially in children, is misdirected. Kids used to play outside, running around playing tag, red rover, cowboys and Indians (is this politically correct to say, especially as we used either cap guns or our fingers to shoot at each other), baseball and football, and exercising our bodies. Today that energy goes into playing computer games. No wonder people weigh more.

David Foster said...

Bruni should read CS Lewis, which I'm pretty sure he hasn't and won't. Lewis observed (in The Screwtape Letters) that the sin of gluttony could involve obsession with quality and presentation, as well as his senior devil puts it, "the gluttony of delicacy"

"Your patient's mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished — one day, I hope, will be — to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantites involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile 'Oh please, please...all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.' You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, 'Oh, that's far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.' If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.
The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work which Glubose has been doing for years on this old woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. The woman is in what may be called the 'All-I-want' state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friends who can do these simple things 'properly' — because her 'properly' conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as 'the days when you could get good servants' but known to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table. Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled."

This is a kind of gluttony toward which the kind of people that Bruni is writing for are particularly tempted.

Sam L. said...

Bruni clearly is humor-impaired. Lefties just ARE. And lefies don't believe in that religious stuff; so, no sin. "Bruni fails to notice that our dear leader, President Obama has been doing everything in his power to make us smaller. In that he has had some considerable success." Well, Michelle did, until the kids rode up against her menu. "
Robert Sapolsky recently explained that much of America’s obesity problem lies in the fact that we eat when we are not hungry. We eat when we feel unloved and we eat when we feel stressed." Such as mainlining a quart and a half of ice cream from the container.

flynful, seems to me I've hear schools have abandoned recesses.

Val said...

It must indeed be true that people shop at costco because they are thrifty. To make the assumption that these are meals for some does not seem right.