Americans spend more than $30 billion a year on dieting, yet we continue to get fatter. In answer to this problem, Richard Klein proposes a radical solution: EAT FAT.

In his book Eat Fat, Klein contends that dieting is worse for us, both physically and mentally, than being overweight. He makes his argument using the creative rhetorical skills he honed writing his first book, Cigarettes Are Sublime (Duke University Press). If he convinces, it’s as much through sheer passion and hypnotic prose as through rational debate.

Eat Fat is no health manual, but it does aim to liberate us from our unhealthy obsession with being thin. Klein extols fat ideals of beauty, pointing out that “in her long history, the goddess Venus has mostly been fat.” He suggests that being overweight can be normal, citing “evidence that each one of us has a given amount of fat that our body tries to maintain, against all efforts to fatten or reduce it.” And he ponders the possibility of a genetic or biological reason for our increasing fatness: “It’s hard to believe that there isn’t some necessity, some evolutionary requirement or social logic, that explains what is taking place. Otherwise, why are we so rapidly accomplishing the opposite of what we are trying so urgently to achieve?”

“Fat Free” is excerpted from Eat Fat, by Richard Klein. © 1996 by Richard Klein. It appears here by permission of Pantheon Books.

— Andrew Snee


Let me express the rage I feel toward the word obesity. This ugly noun, with all its pejorative implications, this term for unhealthy corpulence, has been mobilized by the medical-health-beauty industry in order to stigmatize people who don’t conform to an absurdly restrictive concept of ideal weight. Whereas fat is a good Anglo-Saxon word, obese comes from the Latin obesus, “having eaten well,” past participle of obedere, “to eat thoroughly,” to devour, to chow down. The noun obesity, rare before the nineteenth century, had a sinister rebirth in popularity in the hands of nineteenth-century doctors and health workers, medical imperialists seeking to police bodies by policing the language with which one might once have referred, for example, to someone’s embonpoint.

The alternative to obesity, the image of the thin body beautiful and the ideal of health, is an ideological construct, a false nature conceived by a vast industry in order to sell its services and move its products. Removing fat, the latest medical fad (does anyone think it won’t soon be something else?), eliminates one more pleasure from our diet. First alcohol and tobacco were proscribed, and now fat. America, under the spur of its persistent Puritanism, cruelly medicalizes eating. The health industry has already deemed food to be medicine, and fat to be poison. Now, with its ally, the government, it’s about to turn fat into a drug, which will give it the absolute control it desires, not only over occasional pleasures, like tobacco or liquor, but over food itself, which has the peculiarly profitable quality of being indispensable to life. The drumbeat of moralizing around food is rising to feverish intensity. But why, then, is everybody getting fatter?

My hypothesis is this: If marketers can create guilt in a population saturated in fat, they can use obesity to sell simultaneously both health and unhealth. Two messages, contradictory, yet together very effective: the ostensible message is “eat no fat”; the cynical, or maybe unconscious, one is EAT.

Go to a supermarket and try to find some fat. From the shelves everything screams, NO FAT. The message implies that the shoppers must mostly be fat. They are. The rule seems to be this: The more no fat, the more fat. No fat authorizes eating more.

No Fat, Without Fat, Low Fat, Less Fat, 0g Fat, No Saturated Fat, No Cholesterol, Fat Free or, more and more often, just FREE. Sometimes you even see “New . . . Free,” the two words advertisers love most.

The more fat-free something is the better, which means the more it lacks, the more it’s worth. The supermarket shelves display a whole hierarchy of lack that goes from no fat, to low — or “lo” — fat, to less fat or fewer calories, to the complex appeal of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! which advertises that it has “50 percent less fat and calories than butter and margarine.” It’s not exactly good for you, but eat and enjoy; it could be twice as bad. It actually comes in two forms: regular and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Light. The question is: Who is speaking here? The consumer who hasn’t tried it yet? She’s buying a product whose name tells her what she’s going to exclaim when she puts it in her mouth. Or maybe it’s the product itself speaking to us as we pass its shelf. Not even it can believe that it isn’t butter.

 

Look at what it says on a bag of Frito-Lays New Baked Tostitos: “Our oven-baked chips let you indulge in more snacking fun . . . great taste without guilt. In fact, they have only one gram of fat per serving.” A double message: eat me and you eat less, so eat more and more of me for the sake of pure recreation, of snacking fun, of repetitively putting hand to mouth — another handful of the nuts and chips and chocolates and other snacks that fill our lives. “More snacking fun . . . great taste without guilt.” Ordinarily, sure, great taste and great guilt go together, particularly in this culture. Ordinarily, if you go buy a bag of Tostitos, you think, No! That’s fat. I’m here in this market in order to cheat on my diet, sort of, but I cannot let myself have Tostitos. But these Tostitos are, more or less, less fat than ordinary chips. Eat, eat! I’ve just made a wonderful decision to eat what I might have passed up — snacking fun I would have missed. Do marketing strategies like these promote health in our society? Or obesity? The answer, of course, is both, and it works very well, thank you . Except that we keep on getting fatter.

What is interesting to observe in the supermarket is the ingenuity with which language is used to sell what, in the present environment, ought not be salable. Consider the plight of commodities not blessed with no-fat potential; bacon, for example, has a problem selling itself. If not fat-free, but if, in fact, fat like bacon, a product can only represent itself as being less than what it is. Swift Premium Pork and Turkey Lunch and Dinner Strips, to illustrate, have “50 percent Less Fat than bacon before heating.” The virtue of this is obscure, since you’re never going to eat your bacon raw.

The advertisers exploit the ambiguity of the word less, which normally indicates that some comparison is being made, but which in English can stand alone, bearing only an implied comparison with something else taken to be the norm. You don’t have to know less fat than what, to be stirred by the appeal of “less fat.”

Less fat means more eating, because the eating is without guilt, hence more pleasurable, hence more willingly entered into. Nabisco SnackWell’s Double Fudge Cookie Cake is “Fat Free.” And, on its label, it says that it “tastes so great you’ll never miss the fat.” Ironically, you are being reminded of what they would like you to forget: that you’ll miss the fat. You will. And you will probably eat more of something else to compensate. The strategy is one that Roland Barthes, the great French critic, often analyzed in his book Mythologies: the advertiser anticipates the consumer’s negative reactions and makes them explicit in order to soften the force of their resistance.

Now that food has been turned into a drug, it can serve as both a poison to be controlled and a medicine to be dispensed. Health Valley may make excellent products, but consider the way it uses statistics, provided by the health industry, to inform and entice consumers. It tells nothing but the truth, as the truth has been officially, reliably determined:

Why this Fat-Free Chili is better for you.

This chili helps you fulfill the published dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the National Cancer Society. It is fat-free, with no cholesterol. One serving provides 10 percent of the U.S. RDA of protein, 15 percent of iron, and 100 percent of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is recommended by health experts as a key nutrient for maintaining good health. And it contains over 50 percent less salt than leading chilis. So you can use this chili as part of a healthy diet that may help reduce your risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer.

I rage when I see my mother eating this chili, filled out by her with chopped meat, enhanced by cheese, probably salt. It’s all right, though, she says to herself. She isn’t exactly eating chili; she’s helping to fulfill dietary guidelines. The more she eats, the more she gets of the good medicine it dispenses in the precisely measured, officially approved quantities of the U.S. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances), especially of beta-carotene, recommended by “health experts” (until last month). The more she eats of this good stuff, the more she helps reduce her risk of heart disease and cancer. She has been lured by the truth on the label into believing she’s on the road to getting thinner, when she’s really getting fatter. Her example confirms what a researcher in Philadelphia claims to have discovered scientifically: that if people are told food is lower in fat, they eat more of it than they normally would.

The entrancing shelves of supermarkets are awash with facts on labels, blanketed in blizzards of numbers. FDA labeling requirements are located strategically on packaging either to avoid attention, deflect interest, induce boredom, and mitigate evidence, or in order to insinuate values, enhance claims, and boldly proclaim true facts or figures that can be connected together to paint a misleading picture of health.

The psychology that motivates the allure of food as medicine is succinctly stated on the package of some Italian biscuits: “No-No Is a Yes-Yes: New All Natural Biscotti Fat-Free Coconut.”

“No-no is a yes-yes” pretty much sums up the rhetorical strategy that sells food in our markets. Like a sexual harasser, the consumer doesn’t have to take no for an answer. He can persuade himself that no is yes: a desire that ought to be resisted can be guiltlessly indulged. “Eating fat can make you fat,” it says on the chili can. But it neglects to add that eating nothing but fat doesn’t necessarily make you obese. It’s not eating fat that makes you fat — it’s eating. The chili says, “Eat me: no fat in my can, no fat on yours.” Of course, there may be circumstances when eating no fat means being thin, but the chili-can label creates the illusion that there is some immediate connection between no fat here and no fat there. In fact, eating too much fat-free chili will make you fat.

I say, NO MORE OBESITY. Let’s hear it awhile for fat.

Hold up, for example, Orson Welles. He was obese. But I praise his fat, I love his fat, I am grateful for the taste and energy and generosity, toward himself and others, that went into his accumulating that fat. Or I think of Roland Barthes, whose vast stomach I used to watch in class and admire; it took him a lifetime, cruelly abbreviated (not by cardiac arrest but by a truck), to acquire that paunch, an eternity of sitting — sitting and reading, above all, but also writing and painting and eating and most everything else. Barthes never dreamed of exercise.

Take Pavarotti. I honor his fat. I admire the sacrifice and will required to make his body into the ennobling instrument it is. Every pound of his fat has my utter respect. Or take Roseanne. I salute her for being a kind of heroine to her class, reminding suburbia that working-class people have reasons, perhaps, to weigh more than rich people, and that fat is sexy.

Who doesn’t dream about great pools of yellow, oleaginous liquid fat spreading its gentle balm over rough surfaces, smoothing hurts and filling up the painful spaces in things? Face it. Fat lends flavor to life, the flavor of everything that smoothly melts in your mouth, that creams into liquid pleasure. Food is the foremost pleasure left to those who despair of having sex. In the age of AIDS, as sex becomes more fraught with dangers, real and imaginary, food increasingly permits the displacement of libidinal energy into substitute forms of gratification. And food, in this country, is every day becoming more explicitly sexy. Ask the food experts. Gael Greene writes restaurant reviews that make you think of heroines eating food off the bodies of their lovers; Sheila Lukins is photographed lying on a table, satyrically lowering a bunch of grapes to her deliciously parted lips. There is every reason to expect that the spreading of lo/no fat, with its tasteless blandness, will create, in time, great national cravings for the pleasure of food, orgies and banquets on a vast scale.

A lot of women love fat men. It’s surprising how many are willing to avow the strength of their attraction to such actors as the late Raymond Burr (especially when he was Perry Mason) or John Goodman. They often fantasize the pleasure of being crushed by a big man, a great hulk of a guy, strong, warm, all-embracing, in whose arms, under whose belly you could dream of drowning . Many women seek the charms of heavyset men, men who are stout or portly, chubby or tubby, paunchy, pudgy, or plump, hulky, bulky, brawny, and thick, strapping, imposing, substantial, a chunk.

Desperately poor people are undernourished; many working-class poor, on the other hand, are fat. They pour their money into food and booze, and their fat insulates them against a scary world, where lack may at any moment brutally prevail. Their fat defends them against a cold wind, gives them bulk with which to feel stronger, and allows them to eliminate from their daily negotiations a great many desperate options.

From 1980 to 1991, the percentage of adults who are overweight went abruptly from being a fourth to being a third of their number, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The eighties also witnessed the steady impoverishment of the poor and middle-class. You get fatter in this country as you get poorer, thinner as you get richer. The highest proportion of overweight people are black non-Hispanic women (49.5 percent) and Mexican American women (47.9 percent). What you weigh has more to do with what’s in your pocket than what’s in your food. Oprah is probably genetically disposed to being fat, but her edifying example reveals that genetics is no fatality. In America, money triumphs over even the most resistant fat, which eventually recedes, finally succumbing to the total fitness regimes that only the rich or the fanatical can afford.

I think of my mother, who is beautiful and fat, who is obese by the doctor’s ruling. She has lived an excellent life,the last forty years of which she has struggled to conform to the ideal of beauty that told her she had to be thin. And she did get thin, many times, at vast expense. She lost thousands of pounds of fat, and the more she lost the more she gained, and fat she is to the end. And I love her fat. I only wish there were more of it to love. I rage sometimes at the way she seems to have been manipulated by the ideal that the medical-health-beauty industry sells. But at other times, I recognize that she has never been complacently fat. She has provided herself with the most rigorous check on the pleasure she compulsively seeks. My mother goes to the supermarket to buy some diet frozen dinners, grabs a Snickers bar at the cash register, and eats it on the way to the car. First she feels shame for having eaten all that. And then she forgets she ate it at all.

Dieting and overeating is a way of life for my mother; the nature of the quest, the rhythm it installs, is worthy of more respect than it normally receives. It is a kind of yoga in which you give yourself the pleasure that you simultaneously sacrifice in the name of a higher ideal, making a ritual out of the dialectic of desire and its overcoming. Dieting while growing fatter is a kind of spiritual exercise. Every time you transgress that ideal, every time you break your resolutions and see the goal slip farther away, you feel such guilt and shame that you eat even more, both for consolation and in defiance. More fat motivates more desperate dieting , and the yo-yo effect builds mountains of it.

The health industry has been stigmatizing fat for years, and people are fatter than ever. Obesity in Canadian girls has increased from 14 percent in 1981 to 24 percent, according to a recent Health Canada study. U.S. News and World Report says: “A government survey found that the average weight of Americans twenty-five to thirty years old rose a whopping ten pounds from 1985 to 1992, to 173 pounds for men and 148 pounds for women.” A lot of people blame TV: more watching of more commercials, like ones for food, which brilliantly incite you to snack on the couch. Some people think, as I do, that you also get fat from watching television, not just from eating while you’re watching but from sitting there passively incorporating (absorbing, imbibing, ingesting) video into your body. Anyway, fat is back. McDonald’s hottest item is its triple bacon cheeseburger.

If you need more proof, here it is, the most astounding news of all: they’ve recently revised significantly upward — yeah! — the ranges of ideal weight. By “they” I mean “our gods,” the statisticians in the bowels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the insurance actuaries behind gray partitions in Hartford. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, pushing food, as always, has just issued new guidelines defining the “maximum desirable weight” for a man six feet two and a half inches tall; newly revised, it turns out to be 210 pounds — exactly, as it happens, the amount at which Bill Clinton weighed in at his last presidential checkup. In the race to accommodate more and more fat, one expert at Yale suggests that the best weight for most people is simply the lowest one they’ve been able to maintain for a year as an adult without struggling. Sound good?

It used to be that your ideal weight meant being painfully thin. I’m five feet eight and a half inches; my ideal weight is 142 pounds. At 142 pounds, I would cause my mother to weep for me. So they changed “ideal weight” to “desirable weight,” in order to reflect the difference between fat before and fat after thirty-five. After thirty-five you are allowed to gain a half pound to a pound a year and still be in range. At my age and height, that means I ought to weigh between 142 and 179 pounds. If I let myself accept that upper range as my maximum desirable weight, I could go out right now and eat whatever I want. But who are we kidding? One look in the mirror at 179 pounds and I’m thinking liposuction.

At the same time, doctors, ever faddish, cite new evidence that thin people die young. The clinical director of the National Institute on Aging observes that people middle-aged and older seem to live longer if they’re “a bit on the pudgy side.” Their fat nourishes them; reserves of it help them survive illnesses. In old age, it gives you strength and protection. That view and the conclusions drawn are hotly contested by the majority of dietitians and doctors, who still encourage their patients, of all ages, to take drastic measures to reduce their risk of heart and other ailments that result, they believe, from unhealthy weight.

In the end, what is one to do? I have friends from California who won’t go to Paris because they might have to eat there, where everything is fat or prepared in fat. Vegetables are rare. The French hate greens. Butter and cheese fill French veins; organ meats and goose fat load their tables. They eat much steak and fried potatoes, and dessert is ineluctable. And yet they remain as a people incomparably less obese than Americans. Ask a French woman who knows America why Americans are obese, and she’ll say, No discipline of eating. Despite inroads made by fast food and progressive industrialization in France, French eating remains centered on the ritual of the meal, with its disciplines. The first rule is no eating between meals. At the beginning of every meal, the French wish each other bon appétit. Hunger, the desire to eat, is something to be wished for, to be cultivated. Imagine wishing anyone “good appetite” in America. The slightest hint of hunger here instantly provokes a rush to snack. Americans eat all day long, and food is everywhere available. You can eat anything, at any time, in any place. In France, you have to finish your cheese before you get dessert. Pleasure is not immediate; the meal installs an economy of pleasure, which again means manipulating hunger, holding off eating in order to eat later with more pleasure and heightened discrimination.

Americans have bad eating habits. To diminish obesity in this country, you would have to change not diet, but habits. And to do that would represent an intolerable intrusion of government into our already overregulated lives. Furthermore, it is not even imaginable, politically, that any institution in this country would take on the industries that have made vast fortunes exploiting and encouraging those habits. How would you get people to stop snacking in front of television, assuming you wanted to? You could make television able to watch you and scold you everytime your hand goes to that bowl of peanuts. Big Brother lies at the end of the rainbow for some who want us, at all cost, to be healthy, slim, and beautiful. How do you change a society’s habits? Take candy bars away from the cash registers? Require bottlers to make smaller cans? Obesity is a price humankind pays for civilization. There’s none of it in the jungle; there, all fat is good. Domestic breeding produces fat animals, those who have been encouraged to eat more than they need to for purposes of human need and pleasure. It’s no accident, as Marxists used to say, that America, the richest nation, is also the fattest. The more technological progress we achieve in creating comfort, the more obese we become. And in the meantime, we are being sold an increasingly distant ideal of desirable weight.