Several years ago, Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, PA, started running contests that challenged its patrons to consume increasingly large hamburgers within limited amounts of time. As customers managed to polish off three-, four- and even five-pound burgers, the pub responded with the Beer Barrel Belly Buster, a burger consisting of 11.5 pounds of meat, 25 slices of cheese, a head of lettuce, two onions and three tomatoes. It clocks in at 25,000 calories, and for only $34.99, is one of the richest dollar-to-calorie deals one is likely to find. Those who could eat it within six hours got their meal for free, $350, a certificate of achievement, a photo on the pub’s wall of fame, and a t-shirt.
For years, the Belly Buster was the world’s largest hamburger until the Clinton Station Diner in Clinton, NJ topped it with the Mt. Olympus, which consists of 25 pounds of meat, weighs more than 50 pounds total, takes more than an hour to prepare, costs $99 and is meant for a team of five to consume within three hours. The Clinton Station Diner is not far from where I grew up, and I have seen the Mt. Olympus served just once. I asked the waitress on a subsequent visit how the diner fared who tried to eat it. She smirked and said that Mt. Olympus nearly killed the guy.
The Beer Barrel Pub responded with the Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser, which is roughly twice the size of the Mt. Olympus and while it has been submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records, is not really intended for consumption. How could it be? The sandwich is constructed on such a scale that it would require a man approximately 20 feet tall to eat the Belly Bruiser as if it were a normal burger.
Novelty eating contests have long been a part of Americana, from local restaurant challenges to countywide pie-eating contests to a national competitive eating circuit that features events such as the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest on the Fourth of July, which merits coverage by ESPN. They have been, in part, a celebration of the United States’ rich abundance of food, every kind. But ever since the end of World War II, the American public has gotten increasingly heavy, to the point where the country is currently one of the fattest in the world.
According to the Office of Economic Coordination and Development’s (OECD’s) Directorate for Employment, Labor and Social Affairs, nearly 70% of all Americans are currently overweight (having a body mass index, or BMI of 25.0 to 29.9), with nearly 40% being obese (having BMI, of 30.0 or higher). Body mass index is that rough formula for determining how fat one is by dividing their weight by the square of their height. It is not a perfect formula, as many weightlifters classify as obese based on their BMI, but for the vast majority of people, BMI is a fairly reliable indicator of if they are overweight, and by how much.
Our collective weight problem is not the worst in the world; Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and various Polynesian nations are all worse off. But the U.S. is not far behind, and outweighs every other nation in the G20 as well as most others on the planet. According to the OECD, at our current rate, eight out of every 10 Americans will be overweight by 2050. Nearly half of them, including children, will be obese.
It is not hard to see how we got this way. The average American’s weight has steadily increased since the end of WWII, but it really began to climb here (as well as in other nations) in the 1980s (when, coincidentally, large quantities of government-subsidized high-fructose corn syrup began flooding industrial food production). Concurrently, a decline in home cooking, a rise in restaurant eating, expanding portion size and a bizarre arms race among chain restaurants has made it increasingly difficult for people to maintain a healthy weight.
The New Normal
Americas have known about their collective weight problem for years, but recently, the situation has gotten so out of hand that a culture of obesity is beginning to emerge where being overweight is a new kind of normal, and where obesity is worthy of glorification.
The exemplar of this mindset would be the Heart Attack Grill a restaurant chain with locations in Chandler, Arizona and Dallas, Texas, and it has become notorious for its slogan “Taste Worth Dying For,” The chain features the 1x, 2x, 3x, and 4x Bypass Burger (a quadruple Bypass is aout 8,000 calories), as well as Flatliner Fries cooked in real lard, full butterfat shakes, filterless Lucky Strike cigarettes and candy cigarettes for the kids. Its waitresses, dressed in nurse outfits skimpy enough to make a Hooters girl blush, officially weigh in heavier patrons upon arrival. Anyone over 350 lbs. eats for free.
That last gimmick was thought of by 575-lb. HAG spokesman Blair River, who died in March after contracting flu-based pneumonia. Jon Basso, owner of the Heart Attack Grill said that had Rivers been thin, he would have had a tenfold opportunity to survive the pneumonia. That being said, the Heart Attack Grill has not altered its menu since River’s death and stands by another one of its marketing slogans: “Eating, drinking and smoking toward better health.”
The Heart Attack Grill would be grotesquely laughable, were its mindset not so openly accepted. As obesity rates have risen, so too has the so-called size acceptance movement, typified by groups like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and the International Size Acceptance Association. The primary focus of such groups is to battle size-based discrimination–citing statistics that overweight and obese workers routinely earn less and are promoted less frequently than their normal-weight colleagues. (According to the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, this can amount to as much as $100,000 in lost wages over a 40-year career.)
But sizism groups also promote concepts more difficult to defend, such as “health at any size,” which promotes the idea that health, not weight, is what people should strive for. Critics note that “health at any size” overlooks a clear correlation between being overweight and having an elevated risk for a number of serious ailments identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, various cancers, stroke, and musculoskeletal disorders. A harder line suggests that “health at any size” is merely a means of avoiding responsibility for the health consequences of obesity. More importantly, a push for obesity acceptance might even skew our understanding of what obesity really is.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA) while two-thirds of adults–and one-third of children–are overweight or obese, people are increasingly likely to see their excessive weight as normal. This comes from a recent AHA study of 222 mostly Latino mothers and children at an urban children’s health clinic. Two thirds of the mothers were overweight or obese. Some 40% of the children were as well. The AHA noted that the study group was too small to make any definitive claims, but that similar studies yielded similar results. Enough, by any rate to get some broad indicators of where perceptions are shifting. And they are not going anywhere good.
The study found that 82% of the obese women interviewed underestimated their own weight, compared to just 43% of overweight women and only 13% of normal weight women. Likewise, 86% of overweight or obese kids undershot their weight, versus just 15% of normal weight children. Half of mothers with overweight children thought their child’s weight to be normal. Conclusion: as subjects became more overweight, the larger their misperception of true body weight.