Please Sir, Can I Have a Bit Less?

We’re living in a Food Court Paradise.

The clothing-lite of summer heightens the already near-mad obsession of countless people with their weight, shape and the morality of their menu. Food has become the enemy rather than a pleasure.

A modern form of grace could well begin: “We are grateful for the surge of roughage and the flood of variegated anti-oxidants we are about to ingest. We are thankful for the calorie-poor eco-kosher fish, the radishes grown a 20-minute buggy ride away, and the saltless 70-grain bread.”

Even the French appear preoccupied with what not to eat. This summer, just outside of Saint-Tropez, I listened to incessantly fearful conversations about food. In past years I heard only fond delirium about this or that Breton bistro, a sultry coq au vin, or a pool of sweet berries smoothed with Chantilly cream.

The evidence, as I see it, points to an emerging divide—”Two Nations” as Charles Dickens might have put it—as far as food is concerned. The world seems split between the Too Muchs and the Not Enoughs.

Researchers have reported that English children now become fat almost twice as rapidly as American ones, and more than one of three English children is already overweight or obese. In the U.S., especially in New York City, there is new agitation against transfats in food, which will involve bulky tussles with mighty industries.

We live in a Food Court Paradise.

An astonishing 7.1% of American calories come from sugared water, usually of sharply limited nutritional value. It is remarkable that schools that abandoned cigarette machines house large boxes supplying defenseless kids and adults with pointless calories. Schools used to provide only water fountains—free and sugar-free.

Meanwhile school boards, universities, and other putatively benign institutions continue to provide marketing facilities for purveyors of unfortunate foods. Then, with macabre eagerness, such institutions reveal that the income from this trade supports athletic programs! This is so preposterous that cultural madness is scarcely an exaggerated description.

However it is paid for, the cost for treating obese patients—who require everything from buttressed beds to demanding drug regimens—will be an enormous burden on our health system. Of course a number of obese persons are subject to physiological forces they cannot control. But they are surely the small minority. Meanwhile, the billowing population is hapless victim to economically sensible and brilliantly confected, tasty, fat- and sugar-laden provocations that overfeed the citizenry the length and breadth of the land.

And not only the citizenry of this land. In nations such as India and China, pioneers of the Nouvelle Palate adopt the industrial diets of the Food Court Paradise, America’s more recent, distinctive contribution to world culture. Yes, literal starvation is still the plague of the poorest and least well-organized countries. But diseases of Too Much rather than Not Enough are ravaging the planet.

One Nation literally eats itself to lives of full-time clumsiness, maladroit mobility, chewing their way to a premature grave. The omnipresent lure to consumers of sure-fire diets betrays a haunting, permanent shame about lacking That Old Devil Willpower. They are losers in a thrice-daily struggle to avoid the expertly crafted salt-and-sugar bombs now available almost everywhere. The social influence that friends and family can exert—and did in better old days—seems to be ebbing.

Then there is the Other Nation along side the first, whose citizens scrutinize the backs of cereal boxes with the care of medieval monks. They calibrate nibbles, train as if for the Vanity Olympics, and boast about pounds shed. It reassures itself with a phalanx of nutritional priests. Odd sects form around hitherto unknown beans or berries or sour grains. Throughout, all yogurt producers prosper. Folks discuss “spending calories” as if they were rare dimes.

Once other primates are weaned they all get their own food. Not us. We order take-out. Meanwhile, Jamie Oliver, Michelle Obama and countless others remind us that the world is a garden.

The solution of Not Enough looms close. Solving Too Much is the real—and unexpected—problem. Charles Dickens would have the modern Oliver Twist asking for less.

Mr. Tiger, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, is co-author of the recently published “God’s Brain” (Prometheus).


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