How 'Big Nutrition' Destroys Your Will to Fatness

Awash in healthy choices, starving brains seek sugary relief.


In yet another expose of the scrumptiousness epidemic, Robert Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at UCSF Children's Hospital, explains in the August Nature Clinical Practice Endocrinology & Metabolism that "Big Food" is creating a "toxic environment" that stacks the (high-fat) chips against us. The reason for our scale-denting corpulence, Lustig postulates, is that supermarkets and fast food outlets push fructose-laden, low-fiber, processed fare on us, which in turn causes excess insulin production. Apparently the extra insulin makes our brains think we're still hungry even as our bellies are engorged with a sweet mush of Big Macs and mill shakes.

"It will take a grassroots effort of doctors, community leaders and consumers to force the government and the food industry to get those sugary foods out of mainstream American diets" Lustig told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Everyone's assuming you have a choice, but when your brain is starving, you don't have a choice…. Congress says you can't sue McDonald's for obesity because it's your fault. Except the thing is, when you don't have a choice, it's not your fault."

If Lustig lived in, say, a French fry vat at Hamburger University, his argument might be convincing. Instead he lives, or at least works, in San Francisco, where starving brains are routinely exposed to an endless buffet of raw food cafes, vegetarian grocery stores, sustainable-agriculture farmers' markets, and locally grown produce delivery services. Organic apples are so abundant here that I can only assume they grow on trees–but just try to find a McDonald's fried apple pie. (In 1992 most McDonald's outlets replaced their beloved fried apple pies with a merely tolerated baked version. Out of the 28 McDonald's franchises in San Francisco, just one still serves the fried dessert.)

And it's not as if San Francisco is the country's one exception to fructose hegemony. You can get veggie burgers at Wal-Mart now–or, for that matter, at Burger King. Even if, somehow, you don't live near a Wal-Mart or a Burger King, just log onto DiamondOrganics.com. Your organic sea lettuce will be at your door the next day.

While it's easy to get fat in a world where $10 can buy you approximately five pounds of burrito at Taco Bell, it also has never been easier to get thin. Long after most KFCs have retired their deep fryers for the night, you can still do half-squats at 24-Hour Fitness. FitTV broadcasts hours of exercise programs to some 35 million U.S. households each day. Online tools like MyFoodDiary.com make it a cinch to track every calorie you consume. Infomercial Adonises pitch elliptical trainers and recumbent cycles far more vigorously than Ronald McDonald pitches McNuggets. Add it all up, and you have an epidemic of fitness with no historical precedent.

So forget "starving brains" and the notion that we have "no choice" in the ultimate destiny of our waistlines. If there's anything to blame for our increasing heft, it's the dizzying array of choices that tempt us in every McDonald's and in every Whole Foods Market. Some of the choices available to us are good for our health, some are bad, and every day plenty of people somehow escape the tyranny of their insulin-duped noggins and choose the former.

You can even argue that without Subway's 12-inch Chicken & Bacon Ranch sandwich (1,080 calories) or Hardee's Monster Thickburger (1,420 calories), millions of Americans might not be so healthy: The ubiquity of such tasty slop has created a great demand for more nourishing alternatives, and that great demand has led to increased availability and better value. Without the scourge of Burger King's onion rings, would Wal-Mart be making low-priced organic food accessible to the masses? Would Target have an entire aisle devoted to yoga products? Now more than ever, we really can have it our way, whatever that way happens to be.