When Everything Is Unhealthy, Nothing Is

Americans eat more junk than many other peoples, although the gap is diminishing, and many other Western countries are beginning to catch up to the United States in their obesity rates.

The greater American tendency to eat junk food may ironically be partly the result of our obsession with the health risks and imperfections of perfectly ordinary foods, which leads us to see no difference between such foods and truly unhealthy food. People often erroneously believe that baked potatoes, hamburgers, pizza, and cheese are intrinsically unhealthy, when they are not. As a result, they avoid them, while satisfying their food cravings instead with corn chips, potato chips, doughnuts, buttered popcorn, and cake, which typically contain few nutrients.

(By contrast, people in my wife’s native France, who are somewhat skinnier on average than Americans, do not view cheese, hamburgers, or baked potatoes as unhealthy — indeed, they eat far more cheese, and somewhat more baked potatoes, than Americans do).

It also reflects many Americans’ inability to understand math. The fact that a hamburger has a fair amount of fat doesn’t make it unhealthy if it contains even more protein than fat. If you haven’t had protein for a while, it’s better to eat a quarter-pounder with 28 grams of protein and 26 grams of fat than a salad with iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing, that has just a few grams of protein and more than 25 grams of fat from the dressing. It’s the ratio that matters. But many people can’t do math, and focus just on the amount of fat, ignoring the amount of protein in a food item, or the ratio of fat to protein.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which once taught that trans fats were safer than saturated fat, has helped to blur the distinction between unhealthy and normal foods over the years, by denigrating normal food items such as baked potatos, hamburgers, pizza, pork chops, and bacon as unhealthy. Never mind that a baked potato has only 100 calories, gives you 30 percent of your day’s supply of vitamin C (more than a banana), some protein, and many important minerals — and that potatoes are so cheap that even a person of modest means can afford them. The potato saved generations of impoverished Irish, German, and Russian farmers from starvation and diseases related to nutritional deficiencies. (By the way, I lost 10 pounts while working at McDonalds during Summer of 1988, during a 10-week period in which I subsisted largely on the hamburgers I ate for free as an employee).

CSPI’s recent list of eight supposedly awful restaurant foods both blurs the distinction between healthy and unhealthy foods, and shows ignorance of basic math. Along with some truly disgusting concoctions that are loaded with fat and have few nutrients, its list includes a couple dishes that are fairly healthy, such as the Twice-Baked Lasagna with Meatballs at Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

CSPI faults the Twice-Baked Lasagna for having twice the fat of most other restaurant lasagnas. But that’s only natural, because it’s a relatively large lasagna — nearly 1360 calories. It also has much more protein than most restaurant lasagnas.

CSPI points to no evidence that the Twice-Baked Lasagna has a significantly unhealthier ratio than the typical restaurant lasagna, either in terms of the ratio of fat to protein, or fat to total calories. The Twice-Baked Lasagna has about your daily fat intake, but it also gives you about half your daily calorie needs. It’s a large lasagna, not an unhealthy lasagna. If you were hungry, wouldn’t you rather be served a large lasagna than a small one?

One hopes that the careless methods CSPI uses in branding foods as unhealthy won’t be borrowed by activist local governments, such as New York City, in drafting ordinances aimed at “unhealthy” foods.