Saturday, November 14, 2009

How to Solve America's Obesity Problem

Simple: Ban free bottomless tortilla chips at Mexican restaurants.

I'm only half kidding. Those chips--always the same fried yellow triangles, whether you're in Atlanta or Olympia--are the single biggest threat to American diets today. In the kitchens of "Mexican" restaurants across the country, tortilla chips are stored in huge trash cans (seriously), and dispatched in heaping piles to new tables as soon as they're seated. Before water or waiter, there is a mound of crispy, greasy, addictive chips begging to be devoured. These chips contain hundreds of calories and plenty of stealth fat, all consumed before even touching the meal one has paid for.

No matter what size the party is, the portion is the same. That means a table of two will share the equivalent of over half a bag of store-bought chips, except the ones they serve in a restaurant are even less nutritious. Many grocery store chips these days have added whole grains and fiber, and may even be baked. Restaurant chips, however, are merely fried corn pulp, produced in massive quantities by factories probably working around the clock to sate our appetite for endless chips.

America was the first, and may remain the only, country to "enjoy" this perk in its Mexican establishments. Do real Mexicans nomnomnom on infinite chips with every meal? Of course not! They're too busy eating delicious tacos, flautas, gorditas, and other incredible authentic dishes to bother with silly chips. Other restaurants that offer complimentary preprandial snacks typically provide a basket of bread slices, and perhaps some pats of butter. This is a much more effective and healthy choice, as it satisfies the pre-meal borborygmus (my apologies for the two 50-cent words--I owe you a dollar) without being dangerously addictive.

Some governments--most notably that of New York City--have attempted to curb obesity by requiring restaurants to post calorie counts for the items on their menu. This has proven surprisingly ineffective, as pointed out in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times. If people cannot be counted on to eat their tortilla chips with discipline, a limit should be imposed. Something akin to lashing Odysseus to the mast of his ship--a voluntary restriction of chip intake via some sort of emergency button to prevent continuous refills.

Obesity is probably the most serious and costly health issue facing America today. Many fatal diseases--too many to list--have been tied to this relatively preventable condition. So let's all agree to take an easy step towards dietary health, and say adios to the bottomless chip basket.

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