Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Submitting to Animal Instincts
America's New Culinary Fixation

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 10, 2004 --  

Not until airlines began charging $10 for mediocre sandwiches did the wasteland of airport takeout come into full focus. Palatable alternatives for diners rushing to the gate are scarce. Many counters in both airport and mall food courts are now taken up by establishments offering not meals, but between-meal snacks: Auntie Annie's Pretzels, TCBY Treats, Mrs. Fields Cookies, and the ubiquitous Cinnabon. It's the last of these offerings that is perhaps the most inexplicable. How can a company expand to 603 outlets around the world1 when their flagship product consists of an enormous half-pound ball of grease, sugar and dough topped with frosting?2

Tragically, Americans are buying Cinnabons by the millions. This enthusiasm is reflecting as much on the country's obesity statistics as on the company's annual report. The Center for Disease Control released a study last week showing that American women ate 335 more daily calories in 2000 than in 1971, largely from an increase in starchy, carbohydrate-laden foods like the Cinnabon.3 This increase in caloric intake is a primary factor behind America's obesity rate breaking the 30 percent barrier in 2000.4

It is in this context of extremely dysfunctional behavior that America has experienced an explosive growth in popularity of food diets based on a low-carbohydrate model. Today, it seems half of the country is on the South Beach Diet, "The Zone," or the omnipresent Atkins diet. These plans shun carbohydrate-rich foods like cinnamon buns, French fries, and bread while allowing a relatively high intake of meat and fat. After years of dismissive treatment by nutritionists, a series of studies have shown the diets - Atkins in particular - produce faster weight loss than traditional low-fat regimens, with the surprising side-effect of lowering cholesterol.5 To Americans looking for a magic bullet to cure their obesity without discomfort, Atkins fits the bill. Most people are willing to put up with the common side effects of constipation and bad breath if it means they can eat as many (bunless) cheeseburgers as they want.

For all its extremes, the Atkins revolution is a reality check on at least one front. Although it's been tens of thousands of years since agriculture gave mankind regular access to carbohydrate-rich foods, it wasn't until modern times that industrialization and rising incomes destroyed all limits on intake. Many humans behave like their animal relatives who literally will eat themselves to death if given unlimited access to food. Human bodies are ill equipped to deal with modern abundance -- people naturally crave the energy-rich foods that were once scarce.

Being the good businessmen that they are, mass retailers have tapped into these consumer desires. The Frito-Lay Grab-Bag, the Krispy Kreme dozen, the supersize fries, and the enormous Cinnabon are all manufactured from a cheap combination of starch, sugar and fat, then sold to satisfy consumers' animal hunger. The cheap ingredients in these foods make for very profitable businesses, but as America's obesity statistics show, they are recipes for disaster.

Aware of the problem, but unable to control their animal instincts, Americans have turned to the Atkins diet. They continue eating large amounts of fat, which sates their hunger, while they cut down severely on carbohydrates. The gimmick seems to work, but there should be no question that it is exactly that -- a gimmick. Eating large amounts of meat and fat is no more natural than eating 700-calorie cinnamon buns "as big as your face."6,7 People who shed pounds quickly on Atkins will one day face a hard reality -- if they ever return to their previous eating habits, the weight will return. Permanent weight loss requires a permanent lifestyle change. Certainly, most of those pledged to the Atkins fad will not follow it forever. The few who stay on it must face unknown long-term health consequences.

Clearly, not everyone is cut out for a healthy lifestyle. Everyone has faults, and for those who simply can't control their food intake, low-carbohydrate diets may be a viable option. But the manic acceptance of the Atkins fad by many millions of Americans is troubling. Can so many people really be so devoid of control over their animal instincts that they must swear off bread, pasta, and rice -- the very foods that spawned civilization? Is eating a variety of foods in sensible amounts (in combination with moderate exercise) really a less attractive option? That so many people have chosen the former over the latter highlights just how ridiculous the culinary dimension of American culture has become.

Related Web Columns:
Riding to the Buffet, October 15, 2002

Segway to Obesity, April 30, 2002


1., Press Release: AFC ENTERPRISES names Chris Elliott Cinnabon President, July 23, 2003

2. Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action Health Letter, Cinn City, November 1999.

3. Associated Press, Study on Weight Gain Tips Scale in Atkins' Favor, Feb 6, 2004.

4. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2000, October 9, 2002

5. Mayo Clinic, Low-Carbohydrate Diets: Are They Safe and Effective? November 26, 2003

6. Center for Science in the Public Interest, Ibid.

7. Quotation from author's girlfriend, Kerry Dooley.