Tapas: The Solution to the Obesity Crisis?

tapas HBO’s recently-aired series of films entitled Weight of the Nation is another wake up call about overweight Americans. By now the statistics are familiar, and the series doesn’t provide much data that isn’t already well-known.

Two out of three adult Americans (and one in three children) are overweight or obese, which will result in adverse health consequences for individuals and enormous social costs for society if we don’t change our ways.

Nothing new there. But what the series does do, usefully, is shift attention away from weak-willed individuals to the systemic causes of obesity. Industrial food production and modern advertising are to blame because the excess corn sugar, fat, and salt used in food production is dangled in front of an easily-influenced public by billions of dollars of commercials designed to make their poison irresistible.

And irresistible it is. Human beings are genetically programmed to seek as much fat, sugar, and salt as possible. Willpower alone is obviously not sufficient to overcome our natural propensity to overeat.

However, the films are short on solutions. Carping about personal responsibility is useless. Most diets don’t work. Incentives such as higher taxes on unhealthy foods or regulations, such as New York Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages over 16 oz., are unlikely to work since people are good at finding alternative means to satisfy cravings. (Some defenders of regulations like to point to declines in cigarette smoking as an example of how regulations and price have influenced behavior. But cigarettes and foods are fundamentally different. No one is genetically programmed to smoke.)

So what is the solution? Instead of trying to eliminate our craving for unhealthy food, why not change the way we consume it. The problem is not that fat, sugar, or salt are inherently bad. The problem is that we consume too much of them. So why not develop a liking for small plates—known in Spanish cuisine as tapas?

Tapas are appetizer-like portions that focus on the development of simple or complex flavors, and several dishes are served at the same time to give diners a variety of taste sensations. Every craving can be satisfied with just a few bites. And a proper assortment contains variety—vegetables, seafood, meat, bread, etc.—a good tapas meal is balanced so that no particular flavor or texture overwhelms. And that means we are less likely to eat too much of something we shouldn’t.

We need to get over our passion for “big” things and think small. It is often assumed that changes in values drive changes in taste. But, in fact, a change in our aesthetic sensibilities might contribute to a healthy change in values.

Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg should mandate a tapas bar at every McDonalds. On second thought, that is a frightening image for those of us who love tapas.

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