Is the Food Network making us fat?

The medical profession has been trumpeting the statistics for years now: Americans are getting increasingly fat and unhealthy. Currently the rate of morbid obesity (30 pounds or more overweight) is north of 30 percent, with obesity-related diabetes just as prevalent. And as people age past 40, the risk of high blood pressure zooms past 50 percent.

On the road to hell with Guy Fieri. (Photo via foodnetwork.com)

Goodness knows, I myself have become something of a statistical stereotype, since pounds have been piling up faster than the years, and with blood pressure numbers that can sometimes be called nothing less than stratospheric.

But what seems apparent is that, even as Americans struggle with their expanding waistlines, their craving for food media is growing even faster. Visit the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble — food-related titles far outnumber every other genre, including fashion and automotive. It’s almost pornographic in its excess.

Binging on Food (TV)

Last year, I re-upped for cable television after many years of being happily cable-less, so naturally I spent several weeks in an orgiastic binge of viewing as I discovered what the 100+ channels offered. It was then I discovered the prevalence of food shows. I was familiar with the variety of cooking shows offered on weekend afternoons on public television. No, these were different. I discovered the Food Network.

While FN has its share of old-fashioned cooking shows, hosted by pleasant, chatty cooks, each with a personal schtick, the network’s dominant subgenres are the cooking competition and the eating travelogue. The former is best epitomized by shows like Chopped, where chefs must overcome the paired obstacles of short prep times and quartets of odd mandatory ingredients. The latter is best epitomized by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, hosted by “punk” celebrity chef Guy Fieri, who crisscrosses the country eating at places that, shall we say, specialize in paper napkins.

I found myself captivated by such programming, including various cooking-related reality shows encroaching onto other networks, many of which are hosted by celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay. It was like alchemy, the way chefs threw together ingredients, coming up with concoctions dripping with heavy cream sauces or coated with spices — including salt — that kept me in a constant state of salivation.

Needs more salt. And fat.

Now, as anyone who has tried to lose weight can tell you, fat-heavy meats or pasta with cream sauces, liberally salted, do not help the waistline. And I have noticed during the cooking competitions chefs being urged by their judges to favor butter and salt and other components to add flavor. Well, the whole point of a cooking competition is to make the best-tasting dish, right? And is it not also the point of a TV program to enhance its viewership?

But more to the point are the eating travelogues, of which Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is probably the most egregious example. After Chopped, DDD is perhaps the Food Network’s most heavily rotated show. Whole days’ worth of programming is given over to an endless profusion of fattening foods in massive quantities. Quite frequently, we see single serving dishes easily number in the thousands of calories. One such dish I witnessed recently was a burger that started with two thick pieces of pulled pork, with four (count ’em — four) thick, juicy hamburger patties (with cheese) topped with (I kid you not) a thick slab of fried paté.

Thing is, I know I shouldn’t watch such orgiastic examples of excess. I know that seeing such examples of culinary decadence goes a long way toward keeping my appetite firing on all cylinders. And yet, I can’t help myself.

Viva la difference

What’s interesting is that there is a culture here on Earth of people who, as a group, probably eat better than anyone else in the world — the French. And yet, for their fixation on all things creams and sauces and cheeses and wines, their rate of obesity is far below that of America’s. Why? Could they be inherently more disciplined than we are? I don’t know, but I tend to think it has something to do with how the French savor their food rather than just shovel it down in super-duper-sized quantities.

What would I have Food Network and all its competitors do? They’re in business to make profits by building viewership, and no one is forcing me to watch. And we know that buttery sauces will put on pounds, salt aggravates our blood pressure, and smoked meat is carcinogenic. And still we watch programs about these foods in copious amounts, and we consume them in similarly copious amounts.

In wealthy democracies, we’re accustomed to having our whims indulged. In a capitalistic society, we’re used to corporations, through their advertising and marketing, encouraging us to consume more than is good for us. The question is, will we as a society and as individuals ever learn to be worthy of this freedom and wealth that is turning so many of us inexorably into a bunch of fat whales? Perhaps we do need the nanny state to step in, in some way.

For myself, I have no answer. All I know is that quadruple burger sure looked tasty and that I raided the fridge during the commercial break.

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on May 19, 2015

You're quite right about the French. My friend Pierre Maniglier, who lives in the Périgord region, loves paté, fois gras, truffles, and pastries but never puts on weight. As he explained to my wife and me, "You can eat anything, as long as you do it in moderation"— which I think is typically French.

Roz Warren

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on May 29, 2015

What's making us fat is that most of us consume more calories than we burn. What we watch on TV is less important than the fact that we watch so damn much of it while sitting on the couch and endlessly snacking.

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