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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
America has super-sized

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Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004
From the Field
York Alan


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Washington — I knew that something was up when I wandered into the drugstore next door to The Globe and Mail's Washington office looking for a soft drink and realized that the smallest size available was a neat 20 ounces.

It probably dates me but I still remember when the classic Coca-Cola bottle contained 6 ounces of the stuff and the new king-size bottles were a generous 10 ounces. Who could drink 20 ounces of carbonated brown syrup in one go and not explode? Looking around me, I soon realized that 292 million Americans do it every day and think nothing of it.

After living in Europe for the past seven years, spending five weeks in Middle America was something of a shock. At times I began to think that all of American society had gone on steroids. From soft drinks to cars to houses and sadly, to people, America has gone super-sized.

Sure, Europeans are getting fatter and there's considerable gnashing of teeth about too much sugar and fat in the daily diet in Italy and France. There's worry in Britain that children are no longer walking to school and spending too much time at their computers rather than shivering on rain-soaked soccer pitches kicking around a ball.

But nothing prepared me for Des Moines, Iowa, in mid-January. It was like the scene from a science fiction film after some nuclear disaster. Not a soul could be spotted walking down the cold, windswept streets. Instead, massive SUVs with hefty names like Escapade, Navigator and Yukon cruised around like earthbound aircraft carriers, disappearing into the massive parking garages that abutted every highrise office building.

When I wondered who exactly would need such huge vehicles to get and from the convenience store, I thought again when I saw the size of the people climbing in and out of the front seat.

When I checked out the scene at 801, Des Moines's classiest steakhouse and a favourite with the journalists and politicos who had crowded into town for Iowa's presidential caucuses, I was taken aback to learn that the most popular item on the menu was a 24-ounce Porterhouse. For those who thought it was too much like an appetizer, I was told, there was also a 40-ounce Porterhouse.

As a friend commented later, "Why not just eat the whole cow?"

When checking into hotels, the desk clerk would sometimes apologize for the fact that all the King-size beds were taken. Considering the fact that I was travelling alone, a double bed seemed more than adequate to me.

On TV, it was clear something was going on. If it wasn't low-carb beer or low-carb bread that was being advertised, it was the miraculous Ab-Flex or the tread mill you could fold up and slide beneath your king-sized bed. Yet at the same time, I remember an ad for a brand of ready-made macaroni which had just increased its standard size by 50 per cent because it said that growing kids couldn't get enough of it.

All of this just confirmed a pet theory of mine, that the problem in America is that food and gas are simply too cheap. When it costs you $100 (Canadian) to fill your gas tank, as it does when I go to the service station in London in my ancient VW Passat, you think twice of buying a mastodon that gets half the mileage.

Likewise, when your home refrigerator is the size of one that would look fine in Barbie and Ken's kitchen, there's simply no place for super-sized tubs of ice cream or soft drink containers that require a forklift for pouring. Cheap gasoline is another pernicious influence. With the help of abundant land and tax-subsidized mortgages, it has suburbanized America and destroyed public transit in most cities. And in turn that all helps make people fatter still.

When people use buses or subways, they're forced to move around to get somewhere. There's always the walk to the bus stop or the climb up the stairs in the subway station. And unlike working out in the gym, walking home from your neighbourhood shopping street or local school laden with parcels or schoolbooks costs nothing, burns calories and is easily integrated into a daily routine.

Whether it was Nashua, N.H., or Columbia, N.H., I never seemed to have to walk more than a few metres from my parked car to a restaurant for a meal or a high-school auditorium for a political rally.

Not to say that there aren't some advantages to America's love affair with size. Parking is a breeze because parking lots are massive and individual spaces appear to be twice as wide as the standard one at a European parking garage. And if you're inclined to be frugal, you can always order just one portion of linguini or fajitas at an American restaurant and feed a family of five with it, with some left over for a doggie bag to take home and put in your commercial-sized refrigerator.

Yet excess seems ingrained in the American psyche. I'm convinced that the reason the Atkins diet is popular is not because it forces people to eat fewer carbohydrates but because you can eat as many 40-ounce Porterhouse steaks as you want.

Moderation, I guess, is simply no fun.

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