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Sales suggest people looking to lose

Published May 06. 2013 05:06PM

Nine years and 51 weeks ago, I began a pair of columns about why Americans were so fat and destined to become even fatter. My opinion was partially colored by a great read popular at that time, "Fat Land" (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) by Greg Critser.

The book, for instance, explained the baggy-clothes phenomenon that started back then (and still seems to be going strong) in three words.

It hides fat.

Why else would mainstream America embrace a craze originally created by rap singers imitating prison inmates? And while your corporate-employed, next-door neighbor may not be dressing like the teen boys whose jeans slide past their hips without the support of a belt, he probably wears "loose-fit" jeans after work to help him forget that he is not marsupial even though his baggy belly could pass for a kangaroo's pouch.

Humor aside, there's a scientific precedent for Critser's claim.

In the early 1980s by John Garrow, whom Critser calls "the dean of British obesity studies," recruited a number of obese people who had just lost weight by having their jaws wired shut and broke them into two groups.

Around the waist, one group wore "a two-millimeter wide nylon waist cord, one tight enough to make a white but not red line when seated." It served as a psychological reminder not to overeat.

The control group that didn't wear waist cords initially regained weight at the rate of nearly four pounds per month, yet the group wearing the waist cords recorded "no significant weight gain."

And even after five months, the average difference between the two groups continued to increase steadily.

Critser's point? For years, tight clothing has been a sure sign of weight gain and the uncomfortableness of it has been a motivator to cut back on portions. Loose-fitting clothing is just one of the many recent modifications American society has made that makes being obese a bit easier.

And acceptable.

But now Americans may no longer think it's hip to have huge ones. In fact, they may want to be set free from their fatness. That's why my first words imitated (though probably poorly) Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

The study that suggests this, strangely enough, could very well be found on the business page of a newspaper. Covered by Medical News and carried out by Hudson Institutes, the report titled "Lower-Calorie Foods: It's Just Good Business" found restaurants that offered low-calorie entree options fared better in a five-year period that ended in 2011 than than those that didn't.

Specifically, the restaurants offering more low-cal selections experienced a 10.9 percent growth in customer traffic in a five-year span that was hardly the best of economic times. Those restaurants that didn't experienced an average 14.7 percent decline.

The difference in sales between the two types of restaurants was 11 percent, with half coming from an increase in sales at the stores now offering low-calorie options and half from the decrease in sales at the stores that did not.

The lead author in the study, Hand Cardello, interpreted the findings this way: "Customers are hungry for restaurant meals that won't expand their waistlines, and the [restaurant] chains that recognize this are doing better [economically] than those that don't."

In the past, I've explained the dearth of healthy and low-calorie options at restaurants as an example of the business world giving consumers what they want. Now, it seems, they want to get healthier or at least lose a few unsightly pounds.

Another decline that might suggest Americans are fed up with with being fed too much is that the national average of fast food consumption by calories dropped a bit.

Between the years 2003 and 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the average adult consumed 12.8 percent of his or her calories in the form of fast food. Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage dropped by 1.5 percent.

While the CDC claims this doesn't necessarily suggest on ongoing downward trend, it's worth noting. What's worth noting too, unfortunately, is that the CDC has a far more limited definition of fast food than I do.

If those previously mentioned percentages strike you as low, it's because researchers only counted restaurant food and take-home pizza as fast food.

What is not accounted for in this survey is how prevalent fast food is in the home. Most prepackaged, processed meals that require no more preparation than tearing open a box and utilizing a microwave are no healthier and often as heavily laden with calories as the typical fast-food restaurant item.

The pizza, for instance, that comes from your freezer is generally no better nutritionally and possibly as high calorically than the type that would be delivered by the fast-food restaurant to your house.

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