Extreme Eateries Prey on America’s Troubled Relationship to Food
March 14, 2012
By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
Robert Gibbs needs help. In an emotional video that has become a viral phenomenon on YouTube, the 23-year-old California man talks about his desperate struggle with morbid obesity.
Robert weighs more than 600 pounds, suffers from diabetes, and feeds a food addiction with fast food, according to media reports. He worries that he won’t be alive to watch his niece and nephew grow up.
And if Robert went into the Heart Attack Grill tomorrow, he could qualify for unlimited high-fat food under the Las Vegas eatery’s policy of offering free meals to any customer weighing 350 pounds or more.
The Heart Attack Grill’s Quadruple Bypass Burgers, Flatliner Fries cooked in lard, and Butterfat Shakes may seem like a joke. But it’s all a lot less funny if you watch Robert’s video—or the recent footage of a Heart Attack Grill customer being carried out of the restaurant on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital.
As a dietitian who has worked with people suffering from obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, I have watched with disgust and alarm as American restaurants have raced to create over-the-top “challenge” foods: large portions of extremely high-calorie, meat-heavy foods served up with a hefty side of contempt for the customer’s health.
It reminds me of a time when the tobacco industry glamorized cigarettes as icons of self-expression and rebellion.
To be fair, these extreme eats are hardly confined to the Heart Attack Grill. A pub near Pittsburgh serves a 6-pound burger. One Denver eatery offers a 7-pound burrito loaded with a dozen eggs, half a pound of cheese, and half a pound of ham.
Even national fast-food chains are getting in on the act by offering items that can pack a full day’s worth of calories, sodium, and fat into a single meal. All this comes even as the country struggles with an unprecedented obesity epidemic and skyrocketing health care costs driven by expensive treatments for diabetes and heart disease.
From the restaurants’ perspective, this might just seem like good business. The Heart Attack Grill has certainly reeled in massive publicity with its over-the-top menu. And studies have found that fatty food can be addictive and encourage overeating. But that kind of encouragement is the last thing our country needs.
Our diets are already horrifically unhealthy. The average American now eats more than 200 pounds of meat and 30 pounds of cheese a year—and these high-fat, high-cholesterol products take a terrible toll. Two out of three Americans are now either overweight or obese, and nearly one out of three has one or more forms of cardiovascular disease.
Even Robert’s desperate situation is less and less unusual. More than 15 million American adults now suffer from morbid obesity. The age-adjusted prevalence of extreme obesity is more than six times what it was in 50 years ago, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Personal responsibility, of course, is key to addressing this dangerous problem. But that cuts both ways.
Consumers must tackle the challenge of transforming their diets and moving away from self-destructive eating habits. Robert has taken an incredibly brave step by reaching out for help—often the most difficult thing for a person struggling with obesity to do.
But restaurant owners also have a moral obligation. Those who have made so much money from fast food should think about how their menus and marketing might be putting their customers at risk. It’s time to stop profiting from human misery.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is director of nutrition education with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.