“Tell me what thou eatest, and I will tell thee what thou art.” Let’s hope Jean Authelme Brillatt-Savarin wasn’t right. In the 1980s, Americans collectively gained more than a billion pounds. In the 1990s, that figure doubled. It’s still rising. Obesity is a contributing factor to our health care crisis. To conquer it will “require a complete new awareness,” researchers write, “and this seems a distant prospect.” It’s remote because health care is not the primary crisis we’re facing.
For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have conducted surveys with tens of thousands of Americans. They discovered that since the late 1970s, men have become on average 17 pounds heavier. Women are 19 pounds heavier. The proportion of overweight children has more than doubled. The proportion of overweight adolescents, ages 12 to 19, has more than tripled.1 Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker notes: “Such a broad social development seems to require an explanation on the same scale. Something big must have changed in America to cause so many people to gain so much weight so quickly.” In fact, something big did change. The culture.
Culture is the invisible matrix of ideas, images, and the items produced by institutions and influential individuals that shape our assumptions and actions. That’s a mouthful. Let’s start with ideas. In ancient cultures, social customs flourished under sacred canopies. In many places, eating was more than chowing down. In the Near East, sharing food with a guest was the equivalent of making a covenant. Eating was part of a moral story. Overeating was gluttony. It was obscene, since obscene means “without story.”
The idea that behavior is connected to a moral story began to collapse in the late 19th century. In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche announced that God was dead. With no God, there were no morals or meaning. In Nietzsche’s “take” on reality, there is no ought—only is and can. Nietzsche’s ideas however would have died in obscurity had it not been for the literary and political networks cultivated by his sister, Elizabeth. His ideas were also translated into books and art and movies, most notably in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Slowly but surely, Americans lost the vocabulary of describing behavior, as it ought to be. We could only recognize “the way it is” and what can be done.
What does this have to do with eating? “Ought” acts as a gutter guard against gluttony. With “ought” out of the way, the sky’s the limit when it comes to calories. In 1957 the average fast-food hamburger contained 210 calories. Today it’s 618. In 1969, the average bag of movie-theater popcorn had 170 calories. Today it’s 900. A small bag of McDonald’s French fries contained 200 calories in 1980. Today, it has 230 calories. McDonald’s has now introduced an Angus Burger that contains more than 740 calories. Over the past 20 years, bagels have in swelled on average from 140 to 350 calories each. Researchers comparing dessert recipes in old and new editions of The Joy of Cooking discovered that where the recipes had remained unchanged, the servings sizes were larger. Those born after 1980 have been blindsided by a Big Gulp culture.
They’re also blindsided by our sedentary culture. Personal computers and game stations hit the market in the early 1980s. Sitting became recreation for many. We’re at a point where some Americans consider Wii strenuous exercise. The result is that hospitals buy special wheelchairs and operating tables to accommodate the obese. Americans’ extra bulk costs airlines a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of fuel annually. What we eat—and the way we eat—tells us something about the culture shaping us. David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, says our culture encourages “conditioned hypereating.” In The Evolution of Obesity, Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin say the human body is now “mismatched” to human culture.
What if it’s the other way around? What if the human culture is now “mismatched” to the human body? What if the solution is not health care? What if the solution is a culture promoting human health? Health care is recognizing “the way it is” and what can be done. Health is considering the way we ought to eat—connecting it to a moral story. This is a problem in a culture where it is considered intolerant to strongly suggest to others how they ought to live—including what they eat. Nothing is obscene anymore.
The financial predictions might change the equation. The extra pounds carried by Americans add 90 billion dollars a year to the country’s medical spending. The Economist reports that given the current rise of type 2 diabetes, the American health-care system will be overwhelmed in twenty years or less. Type 2 diabetes is usually preventable by exercise and proper diet—people eating and keeping fit, as they ought to.
We can’t solve the health care crisis using the same mind that created it. The four authors of Globesity believe we need “a complete new awareness, the re-education of the great mass of consumers, and this seems a distant prospect.” It’s remote because Western culture has deleted ought from its vocabulary. The solution is making a culture where institutions and individuals recognize a universal code—ought-is-can-will—and take it seriously in reshaping the images and items that create our collective eating habits. Human nature and human history tell us that willpower and Wii will not change the equation and keep Americans from busting a gut.
Before he passed away in 2006, Philip Rieff saw dark clouds on the horizon—not unlike C. S. Lewis did in The Abolition of Man. Rieff warned about “the free capacity of the human either to destroy everything created, including himself,” or to improve life as it ought to be. But that required “the language of faith,” he wrote. “Genesis 1:26-27 is the crucial and familiar text: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Rieff concluded: “there cannot be humane self-knowledge without some knowledge of the creator authority.”2 Unless we restore a culture shaped by the ought-is-can-will story, we’ll probably keep busting our guts until we break the bank or worse.
1 Elizabeth Kolbert, “XXXL: Why are we so fat?” The New Yorker, July, 20, 2009 pp. 73-77.
2 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 55.