Thoughts on America’s love-hate relationship with fat

I am sitting at the counter of Red’s Tasty Express in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market (209 Edgewood Ave., 404-681-0054). A kid about 6-years-old leaps onto the stool next to mine, slaps the counter with his hands and shouts, “I want a Happy Meal!”

The lady behind the counter is unfazed. “You mean you want a hamburger and fries?” she responds.

“Yeah,” he says, “and put some mustard on it.”

Of course, he won’t get a toy, but he will get a helluva lot better burger than Ronald McDonald would hand him. You are probably aware that Mickey D’s feeds more than 40 million people worldwide every day and is the subject of a new, hilarious and horrifying film, Super Size Me. The director, Morgan Spurlock, eats every meal at McDonald’s for 30 days and limits his exercise to that of the average American. The results are appalling. He gains nearly 25 pounds, his cholesterol skyrockets, and his liver, which comes to resemble an alcoholic’s, prompts his doctor to say it’s turned into pate. The same doctor begs him to discontinue the experiment.

The movie isn’t just about McDonald’s. It’s about the epidemic of obesity in America. About 60 percent of Americans are now overweight or obese, and one in three children born since 2000 is now expected to develop diabetes. Sitting at Red’s — scarfing down fried chicken, collards cooked with pork, salty black-eyed peas and okra, and the best hoecake I’ve eaten in many years — I look around the market. Fatback, hog jowls and salt pork are piled all over the place, and the average butt could cause a solar eclipse.

“What do you use to fry the chicken?” I ask as I pay.

“Vegetable oil,” the woman says. “Did you like it?”

I assured her I did. Of course, not so long ago, hearing that something was fried in vegetable oil (like soybean oil) was assuring. That’s no longer the case, because vegetable oil — depending on whether or not it is hydrogenated — can contain high levels of trans fatty acids, which turn out to be a primary cause of heart and arterial disease. Thus, margarine, which has a high trans fat content, is less healthy than butter. Scott Peacock, who fries the city’s best chicken at Watershed, has always used lard and butter, arguing that the chicken absorbs little fat, anyway. He turns out to have been making the healthier choice. Lard is better for your heart than Loretta Lynn’s Crisco.

The June issue of Gourmet magazine includes a feature on trans fats, which are also abundant in store-bought baked goods. The article points to something that’s also examined in Super Size Me — the rotten state of corporate culture. Just last week, we heard Enron employees boasting on tape about defrauding Californians of millions of dollars thanks to that state’s disastrous decision to deregulate the energy industry. According to Gourmet, the processed food industry has similarly worked against the health of Americans for more than 30 years.

The magazine recounts the experience of Mary Enig, a researcher who in 1978 identified trans fats as a more likely cause of cancer than the saturated fats blamed by the federal government. Companies like Kraft and Procter & Gamble hired scientists for the purpose of “protecting trans fats from the taint of negative scientific findings,” according to one such scientist. They were fierce in their tactics, apparently even convincing the Food and Drug Administration. That is finally changing and, beginning in 2006, product labels will have to identify trans fat content. This is a small step, considering that four to five daily grams of trans fat doubles the risk of heart disease — and the average American eats five to six grams. A Harvard scientist quoted in the article says that trans fats kill 30,000 Americans a year.

Reading such material, I found myself shifting in my opinion about the lawsuits recently filed against McDonald’s that were eventually dismissed. It’s easy enough to argue that people should take responsibility for their own dietary choices, but if the food industry is going out of its way to deceive consumers, shouldn’t it be held accountable? Denmark has outlawed trans fats and most of the European Union will likely soon follow suit. (Of course, Europe is weirdly indifferent to cigarette smoke. They want clean arteries and we want clean lungs.)

Leave it to American ingenuity to try to turn bad news into cheerful dissembling. McDonald’s, ridiculously claiming Spurlock’s film didn’t influence it, has eliminated super-sizing in the interest of your health and it is marketing an adult Happy Meal that includes a salad, an exercise booklet and a pedometer to measure your brisk walks between the golden arches and your cardiologist’s office. Meanwhile, the company has broken its promise to discontinue frying with oil high in trans fats.

The evening of the same day I lunched at Red’s, I visited a new restaurant and found myself agonizing over whether to order pasta, which the chef considers his specialty. I’ve been toying with the relatively high-protein, low-carb South Beach Diet (“lose belly fat first”), which, unlike the Atkins Diet, does not permit you to eat all the fat and protein you can stand. (Both diets outlaw trans fats, however.) I know my work reviewing restaurants makes it impossible for me to really adhere strictly to the South Beach Diet. But it does occur to me — as I order pasta — that these diets are more about weight loss than health.

Although Atkins outlaws trans fats, it certainly lets you indulge in other fats to your heart’s discontent. An unanswered question is whether the weight loss coincides with an actual improvement in cardiovascular health. Intuitively, a diet of huge quantities of fatty red meat does not feel as healthy as red meat replaced by pasta now and then. As I put tortellini stuffed with green peas, drenched in browned butter, in my mouth, I make the same resolve I usually do: hit the gym hard the next day and take my Lipitor.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at

Food Events