The Freedom to Be Fat? The Politics of Movie Popcorn, Obama, and the FDA

Someday we’ll look back on this week’s White House movie-popcorn brouhaha as madness. By Michael Tomasky.

Back in a very different era, my dad drove a 1974 Chrysler Imperial. An insane artifact by today’s standards, it featured a 7.2-liter engine and had an interior that was larger in footprint terms than many New York City kitchens.

Today, that Imperial—in the new, post-OPEC crisis world, Chrysler started making them smaller the very next year—is a symbol of an age that’s unthinkable to most of us today. I’ve long thought that today’s equivalent of the Imperial is that massive tub of movie popcorn, large enough that an infant could be bathed in it. One of these days, after we’ve quit worrying about labels like “nanny state” and sorted out the difference between “freedom” and mere selfishness or stupidity, we’ll look back on it as madness. Until then, we’ll have Democratic White Houses overruling the FDA out of fear of Fox News.

This was the story in The New York Times this week, and it centered specifically on movie popcorn. As part of the health-care law, new rules would require restaurants and other food-serving establishments to post nutritional information. Movie theaters were on the original list sent out by the FDA. But, the Times reports, after some White House intercessions, cinemas were dropped from the list.

In a nation up to its eyeballs in fat, nothing is more symbolic of it all than movie popcorn. A tub of the stuff, a recent study found, is the equivalent of eating, according to a WebMD reporter, “a pound of baby back ribs and a scoop of Häagen-Dazs.” We’re talking about 1,100 to 1,400 calories and maybe 60 grams of fat. If you don’t follow these things, a person is supposed to take in maybe 2,000 calories a day, and 60 or 70 fat grams. It’s always been a mystery to me why movie popcorn is so off the charts, since microwave popcorn has about half the calories and fat, or a third even. There must be something about the stuff they inject into the movie version that … I don’t even want to finish writing that sentence.

I know people hate hearing this, and I understand what the comment thread on this piece is going to be full of, and yes, I myself eat popcorn at the movies every once in a while. But let’s face it. The nutrition situation in this country is disgusting. With the help of website, I list below some meals. See if you can match them to the calorie and fat counts (answers revealed at the bottom of the column):

  • Wendy’s: Big Bacon Classic, Great Biggie fries, large Coke
  • KFC: Three-piece meal, potato wedges, biscuit, large Pepsi
  • Bob Evans: Country spinach salad, meatloaf, Reese’s sundae
  • Cheesecake Factory: Sante Fe salad, Louisiana chicken pasta, Snickers bar cheesecake
  • Macaroni Grill: Shrimp and artichoke appetizer, chicken parmesan, tiramisu

The calorie and fat counts you need to match to these meals are: 1,709 and 100; 1,390 and 57; 3,980 and 105; 3,990 and 154.5; and 1,160 and 51.5.

You’ll note that even the lowest one, the 1,160-calorie meal, has nearly the full day’s worth of fat. It’s the fat in these places that gets you. And the sugar. Soft drinks officially don’t have any fat grams, of course, but that’s just a trick.

I know I sound like the worst sort of stick in the mud when I mention that it’s estimated that our horrible national nutrition costs us $71 billion a year, and things are getting worse. By a lot of public-safety and health metrics, we’ve improved. But on food, portions just keep getting bigger, and we just keep expanding with them. And don’t kid yourself if you’re a cultural elitist and don’t eat at the Cheesecake Factory. That swordfish that tasted great at that fancy restaurant the other night but didn’t taste quite as good when you tried to replicate it at home? The difference was simple. A half a stick of butter. Makes anything taste better.

Look, Jack LaLanne I’m not. That Snickers bar cheesecake sounds pretty damn good. And I just can’t live without cheese. The reason I carry around the (defensible, I tell myself) spare tire that I do is cheese. And to some extent cured meats. And a little ice cream, but that’s in phases.

So I’m not a health freak, and no, I don’t want to pass laws mandating the eating of broccoli. But I do want us to understand how wrong and simple-minded our definition of freedom is today. Any time the government appears to be suggesting some program aimed at getting people to do something that is obviously good for themselves—buying health insurance, not eating a bucket of popcorn big enough that two cats could screw in it—a certain number of idiots jump up and cry “Ha! Nanny state! Taking away my freedom!” This, according to that Times article, is what the Obama administration feared Fox and Glenn Beck would do if it issued too many new FDA rulings.

Well, in one sense, any person is “free” to eat as much Snickers-bar cheesecake as he likes. But that isn’t actually what freedom means. Actual freedom contains elements of responsibility and recognition of oneself as an actor within this larger thing we try to call society. Eating anything you want isn’t a definition of freedom. It’s just indulgence. And it says something depressing about our country that it is permitted to masquerade as the former.

I’d love to see the Obama administration defend its FDA a little more strongly. I met and covered FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg when she was David Dinkins’s health commissioner in New York in the early 1990s. Believe me, that was not an administration in which many people amassed sterling records of service. She did.

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But it’s not going to be a liberal presidential administration that changes our habits along these lines, alas. Government is too discredited in many people’s minds for that. One of these days, though, McDonald’s or somebody is going to say: “You know what? We’re done serving super-size portions of fries. We’re going back to 1970s portions.” And that may start a trend toward more health-consciousness that others will follow. When it’s corporations taking away “freedom,” people might not mind so much.

Those calorie counts:

The Wendy’s meal is 1,390 calories; The KFC meal is the lowest, at 1,160; the Bob Evans dinner is 1,709; the Cheesecake Factory repast is 3,980; and the Macaroni Grill feast tops out at 3,990.