Why America is Fat

The confluence of two moral imperatives and a mild defense of Mayor Bloomberg

NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been catching a lot of grief the last few days for his proposal to prohibit movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, refreshment stands, etc., from selling sugared beverages (i.e., soda) in containers larger than 16 oz.

Legitimate criticisms notwithstanding (and there are some), I think he has a point; the underlying issue isn't the beverages themselves, but a marketing approach that encourages over-consumption. This fits in nicely with a theory I've been working on for a few years about why the U.S. seems to be in this weird obesity epidemic.

One reason (not the only one, to be sure) is the unfortunate confluence of two behavioral imperatives that almost all of us have been programmed with since infancy.

The first is "Wasting food is a sin." My Dad used to tell me that in the Army mess hall, the sign said, "Take all you eat, but eat all you take." How many of us have grown up with some version of "Finish your plate, children are starving in Europe/China/Africa/Mexico/India/Pakistan" — every generation, every immigrant group, had a different region. Folk music parodist Allan Sherman recounted that when he was young, he really thought that if he finished his plate, it would keep those children from starving in Europe — and that's why he was fat. I still have trouble throwing food away.

The other is, "It's stupid to pass up a bargain." This is the "supersize trap." Who wouldn't want to get twice as much soda/fries/popcorn/onion rings for only an additional 29¢? Twice as much!! C'mon, what's wrong with you?

And you can't blame the poor kid behind the counter, the only reason she's saying, "You can have 32 oz. for only 25¢ more" is because the manager told her to, and the only reason the manager told her to is because that's how he was trained, in a management program that selects against independent thinkers and focuses only on short-term profitability. Hell, you can't even blame the owners, they're just being capitalists, and it's like the parable of the frog and the scorpion; it's just their nature. They want to sell you as much as possible, and the more they sell you in each transaction, the more profit they make.

A little while ago, I was in a Subway out towards Lodi. As you may be aware, they have this price promotion for "five dollar foot-longs", i.e., 12" sandwiches for $5. But, trying desperately at the time to get my weight under control, I didn't want a whole 12" sandwich, I only wanted the smaller, 6" version.

The 6" sandwich was $4.49. That is to say, half as much sandwich cost 90% of the full-size sandwich. Now, I understand pricing, and I wasn't expecting half a sandwich to cost $2.50, but y'know, maybe $3.29? $3.49? $3.69?

I paid the $4.49 (plus tax, of course) for the 6" size, and felt like a moron. I felt like I had cheated myself. I felt like someone had just sold me the Brooklyn Bridge. Or an actual subway.

Now, some might say that I could have eaten half the 12" sandwich and taken the other half home. And I could have. That doesn't work for me in that particular situation, but when I get a take-out sandwich at or a or like that, I'll often eat half and put the other half in the refrigerator for later.

But that's not the point. I didn't want a 12" sandwich. And I felt like I was paying for one anyway.

So on the one hand, the thrift imperative pushes us to buy more food than we really want, and then the don't-waste-food imperative kicks in and we're compelled to finish it. This also contributes to "portion-size inflation," another factor in America's overeating.

I see Mayor Bloomberg's proposal as an attempt to break that cycle. And I applaud him for it.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Turnstile June 04, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Ok, they pass the law. Nothing larger than 16oz. sodas will be sold. But wait, I want more than 16oz. because I'm really thirsty or maybe I don't want to go back to counter during the movie so I buy 2. That's 2 cups, 2 straws, 2 lids. Isn't that more wasteful than half the a soda being thrown away? I think you're missing the point here. You can choose to go to another theatre that sells 16oz. drinks or don't drink sodas for 2hrs because you don't want to be wasteful. Wouldn't it make more sense to offer various sizes and give people a choice as it is now? What if they decide a triple burger is too fattening and pass a law that you can only sell a single burger? SUV's wastes too much gas so we can only make small cars? Chocolate bars are too big? Well, I think you get the point. If we don't buy them, they won't sell it, but at least we have a choice and this is where self control comes in. Don't blame free market.
Tom Schweich June 04, 2012 at 05:42 PM
When one of the local greasy-spoons size-escalated their California Burger to a minimum 1/2 pound, we countered by ordering one and requesting that it be split. That's lost revenue for the restaurant, but I sorta feel obligated to tip as though we had bought two hamburgers.
John Piziali June 04, 2012 at 06:01 PM
AlamedaGirl, yes its called "common sense". I like your approach, rather than blaming it on advertising.
Tom Brody June 04, 2012 at 09:20 PM
The sandwiches from SUBWAY are yummy, especially the teriyaki chicken. That's why I always order the foot long option. Plus, it is interesting watching the cook assemble the sandwich, which involves arranging almost a dozen condiments right before your eyes, e.g., onion, jalepeno, olives, bell pepper, cheese, blah, blah, blah. However, I do have enough self-control always to avoid hamburgers.
Anthony Bologna, Jr. June 05, 2012 at 12:13 AM
My favorite $5 footlong is the Veggie Delight.....load it up with all the fresh veggies you want and like with the lite dressing, half now, half later.....what's wrong with that? Stay away from the meatball sub with a ton of cheese and you'll do just fine! Also, know why "we're fat".....what was the biggest attended event in Alameda this weekend....."Run, Jane Run".....??? or Off the Grid......!!! I rest my case......unfortunately.....!!!


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