We’re fat. Really fat. And it’s not just us—it’s our kids, too. Have you seen them? They’re enormous.
According to the mantra of obesity experts, however, it’s much like Robin Williams (correctly) told Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting: It’s not your fault.
No, it’s not your fault, it’s not our fault, it’s not their fault. Unless “they” are restaurateurs, in which case it is their fault. That’s especially true for chain restaurants—the ones selling McAnything, blooming onions, and the like. They’re killing us by the greasy mouthful.
And because it’s their fault, these restaurateurs, we must give them their due regulatory dickens. Help is here, America. Trans fat bans. Menu-labeling here, there, and everywhere. More help is on the way, too. Caffeine and sugar and salt be gone. It’s for the children.
In some alternate universe, one that actually assigns blame to deserving people, it might be your fault, not theirs. Maybe it is your fault your kids are fat, since you feed them. Maybe the food that parents supply to their kids—and demand restaurants feed their kids—is making the kids fat. Which means parents need to do a better job of making sure their own kids eat healthy, and get some exercise.
Wouldn’t that be a refreshing message?
Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink, who heads the school’s Food and Brand Lab and served in the George W. Bush administration as executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, is not in the blame business. He’s an Ig Nobel-winning researcher, author of 2006’s Mindless Eating, and has been called “one of the world's leading authorities on consumer behavior.” Though he doesn’t point fingers, Wansink’s latest data suggests that our national fixation on blaming the restaurant industry for childhood obesity is misguided.
That conclusion comes from “The Joy of Cooking Too Much,” a study co-authored by Wansink and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In carrying out his research, Wansink and co-author Collin Payne, assistant professor of marketing at New Mexico State University-Las Cruces, relied on the simple premise that people tend to eat about two out of every three meals at home.
To learn whether home cooking might be a chief culprit behind America’s portliness, Wansink and Payne pored over seven decades of The Joy of Cooking, one of America’s most popular and durable cookbooks. After identifying recipes for 18 foods that had appeared in each edition of the book, the authors examined the calorie counts and serving sizes for those food over the years.
“If you look at all the common recipes, their calories and serving sizes, there’s about a 43% increase,” Wansink told Reason. “About two-thirds can be attributed to ingredients—more butter, more sugar, more use of sauces, nuts, and raisins—but the other third can be attributed to increases in portion size.
“The same pie that was to be cut in eight pieces in 1937? The Joy of Cooking now recommends you cut it into 6 pieces.”
Sounds perfectly sensible. But aren’t cookbooks just responding to increased restaurant portion sizes, thus putting the blame back on restaurateurs? Not quite. “A lot of the increases in calorie and serving sizes we started seeing in cookbooks before we saw them in restaurants,” Wansink said. “Our penchant for larger servings started in the home and then moved to the restaurant.”
But how might Wansink’s argument go over with parents—and other food and nutrition experts? That his book Mindless Eating earned kudos from such divergent sources as John Stossel, who featured Wansink’s work on 20/20, and the holy trinity of unholy food nannies—Marion Nestle, Kelly Brownell, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest—showed reason for hope.
Last month Wansink sat on a panel on ways to raise a healthy eater
At the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach last month, Wansink sat on a panel entitled Beyond Chicken Nuggets: How to Raise a Healthy Eater. In addition to Wansink, the panel featured food celebrities Rachael Ray and Tom Colicchio, South Beach Diet inventor Dr. Arthur Agatston, cookbook author (and wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld) Jessica Seinfeld, and moderator Tara Parker-Pope, wellness columnist for The New York Times.