So I finally got round to watching the first episode of The Men Who Made Us Fat, the three- part BBC documentary currently screening on BBC 2, presented by Jacques Peretti. As its name suggests, it tells the story of how obese people became so through no fault of their own. In an only slightly novel twist on this now-tired ground, we are encouraged to not just blame high fructose corn syrup, but the men who made HFCS happen (legislators, scientists, farmers), and who helped to convince people to consume so much of the stuff (Mad Men).
If you haven’t read or seen much to do with obesity (fat chance!), you’d be in for an engaging tale that would fairly likely convince you that high fructose corn syrup is the problem, and that we are powerless against its evil charms because it is addictive and toxic – not to mention that it’s in, like, everything. At least in the US, that is. HFCS has made its way across the pond in some products, but the Brits’ main problem is with eating too much normal sugar, which like its sibling HFCS, is addictive and toxic. Oh, and they also eat too many fish and chips and pies and stuff. And they probably also drink too much beer. This is the second part that we’re not responsible for: we live in obesogenic environments which conduce us to getting fat because there is too much cheap, calorific food around, and our caveman brains just can’t say no.
Well, I found this documentary enormously irritating, and not just because Jacques Peretti isn’t Louis Theroux and has an annoying lisp. It’s rather because here is yet another missed opportunity to use what is clearly a handsome budget to get a sizeable audience to think about an issue like obesity in a nuanced, critical, and ideally scientific way. For example, in one scene an expert is explaining to Peretti how food-centric environments act as cues for what is known in academic circles as “hedonic hunger”, which describes a kind of obsessive thinking and fantasising about food even when you’re not actually hungry (source here). If you give into hedonic hunger, you’ll be eating without needing to eat, which is clearly one good way to put on weight. After receiving a fairly lucid explanation of this term, Peretti asks his expert a question about whether food industries knowingly produce this “hedonic food”.
What? You mean there’s actually food out there that’s capable of obsessing about itself? Or perhaps a self-pleasuring food? No, Mr. Peretti. But the least you could do is match the level of attention and understanding that you would expect from your viewers.
I won’t go into all the other things that bug me (my thoughts on the caveman thesis are here), except to say that well, those men didn’t make anyone fat (unless they were fat themselves, in which case they made themselves fat). With just pictures of food, the “This Is Why You’re Fat” website has more nuance than this documentary. Oh, and sugar is sugar is sugar. Which means that HFCS is not the devil. Or if it is, then it shares that distinction with “real” sugar.
And if that’s true, then Christina Tosi is the devil’s mama. Here people are literally dying from eating (and drinking!) too much sugar, and she encourages people to eat things that look like this?
I think the magic of Tosi’s crack pie is that is contains about a bucket of sugar, 3 dozen eggs, a kilo of butter, and a handful of oats. It’s the ultimate hedonic food! And it’s calling my name. Must. Eat. Crack. Pie. New York, here I come.