McDONALD'S, the global brand for burgers and fries, has come over all green. Salad is going to be on the menu along with Big Macs. Eggs have gone organic. Lard has been replaced with vegetable oil. Macca's is even going to follow the supermarkets and print a calorie count of its food on the packaging.
Call me a cynic, but I wonder if it's anything to do with the fact that McDonald's had been facing a class action lawsuit. Gregory Rhymes is a 15-year-old American boy who weighs a whopping 178kg and suffers from Type II diabetes. With the aid of a New York lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, he claimed his woefully overweight body and ruined health were the fault of McDonald's — because he had eaten there nearly every day since he was six years old.
Last month, the judge threw the case out — but there are some worried people in America's fast food industry. Tobacco companies have already been forced to pay up to cancer sufferers. Could a billion-dollar business that has stuffed Americans with fat and sugar for the past 20 years be called to book as well? McDonald's lettuce leaves are less a gourmet treat than a placebo for the disease that is wreaking havoc in America: obesity.
A new book called Fat Land pulls no punches. Its author Greg Critser subtitles it bluntly: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World.
Most Australians are never more than a walk or short drive from the fix of saturated fat and sugar that has seen our weight, like that of the Americans, ballooning. It is true that there is nothing quite as grossly fat as a fat American. Even clothes sizes have to be coyly renamed to accommodate them. Restaurant chairs and plane seats just aren't big enough.
Only recently, a woman succeeded in suing the hugely fat American who sat next to her on a long-haul flight and overflowed into her space, crushing and injuring her.
But the rest of the world is getting bigger, too. We should be sitting up — while we still can — and paying serious attention to the American situation.
Since fat children are twice as likely as thin ones to become overweight adults, the projection is that a quarter of adults will be obese by the year 2010.
Obesity opens the door to a whole posse of killers, including heart disease, cardiovascular problems, strokes, diabetes and respiratory problems. No wonder that the World Health Organisation declares that obesity is "the dominant un-met global health issue, with Western countries topping the list".
The face of death is no longer the starving African, it's the grotesquely overweight Westerner. It's not AIDS or malaria or malnutrition that will kill us. It's the unlovely, undignified end of being too fat. Americans are there already — 61% of them are overweight enough to begin experiencing health problems as a direct result.
More than five million Americans meet the definition of "morbid obesity" — so fat that they qualify for a radical surgical technique known as gastroplasty, a reduction of the stomach so that they can't eat as much. And American children are heavier and more unfit, too. About 25% of under-19s are overweight or obese, already on track for an unhealthy adulthood.
"Becoming obese," says James Hill, an epidemiologist in the field of obesity, "is a normal response to the American environment".
So what is it about the American environment — and, increasingly, our own — that is making our weight balloon?
We all know the short answer — too much fast food, too little exercise — but the detail is fascinating.
According to Greg Critser, the problems began with Earl Butz, a former Secretary of Agriculture to Richard Nixon whose brief was to produce cheaper food.
Under Butz, corn crops multiplied, leading to the increased production of high-fructose corn syrup, a liquid sugar produced from corn starch that is six times sweeter than cane sugar, and which had new attributes that matched the needs of food manufacturers very well indeed.
Not only did high-fructose corn syrup mean that more sweet foodstuff could be produced much cheaper than before, it also protected frozen foods from freeze-burn, prolonged the shelf life of other foods and made baked goods look more appetising.
Then, palm oil — a vegetable oil made from the pulp of the palm tree — entered the national diet. Palm oil may sound healthy, but its other name, tree lard, gives a hint of its highly saturated nature. It was loaded with calories and bad for arteries. But, in the jargon of the processed food industry, it gave "good mouthfeel". And it was cheap.
"The legacy of Earl Butz was that Coca-Cola and Pepsi switched from a 50/50 mix of corn sugar and cane sugar to 100% high-fructose corn syrup, enabling them to save 20% costs, boost portion sizes and still make profits."
At the supermarket, too, calorie-dense convenience foods became even more affordable.
"In short, Butz had delivered everything the modern American consumer had wanted. Cheap, abundant and tasty calories had arrived. It was time to eat."
The cheap, calorie-dense fillers were embraced by a new breed of fast-food marketing men — and sales went through the roof. What the American consumer wanted was quantity, not quality. They wanted more for less, and they got it in jumbo portions and combo deals (chicken, mash, gravy, peas and a cola, for example).
But enough is never enough. The more you give people, the more they eat, simple as that. There is a new science of understanding human satisfaction, or satiety, and the evidence seems to show that there is actually no such thing as satiety.
A study by Penn State University in the US shows that as portions increase, people simply eat more. Human hunger is not something related to stomach size and caloric need. It is something that can be expanded by merely offering more and bigger portions.
Between 1970 and 1994, individual American food intake increased by an average of 200 calories per person per day. No wonder the kilograms began to pile on.
Along with the fast-food combo meal, the new art of super-sizing portions arrived — another rocket in the arsenal of food companies set on boosting profits by getting people to eat more.
What began as an occasional treat became a way of life, even an addiction. Tellingly, Critser calls habitual fast-food eaters "heavy users", as though they were junkies.
"By 1999, heavy users — people who eat fast food more than 20 times a month — accounted for $US 66 billion of $US 110 billion spent on fast food."
People bought pizza by the metre and super-sized burgers:
"There was no such thing as a fixed size for anything, because anything could be made a lot bigger for just a tad more. Bigness ruled. The shame of gluttony was banished."
There were social factors going along with changes within the food industry. Critser blames the Me Generation — the parents who chose not to impose boundaries on their children, who avoided conflicts at the table by letting children eat what and when they wanted.
He blames changing patterns in families — where hardworking parents gave up the habit of cooking a meat-and-two-veg dinner and sharing a table with their children.
The great innovation in America, and here, is the freedom to "order in".
In America, 40% of the average person's food budget is spent on takeaways. Fat consumption doubled between 1977 and 1995, from 19% of calories to 38%.
The American national dish isn't a Thanksgiving turkey, barbecued steak or Mum's homemade apple pie. It's a toxic mix of sugar, fat and Coca-Cola.
Children are the ones we should really be worrying about. Yet public panic over food tends to focus on intolerances and eating disorders leading to anorexia and bulimia, when the threat of obesity and its attendant diseases is far greater.
If we are to start taking control of our children's diet, we can't start too young.
Another Penn State study experimented with giving large portions to children. It found that at the age of three, children will eat what they can and leave the rest. But at five, a child will finish the meal, even when the size of the portion is increased.
If we no longer know when we are full, blame it on snacking and the explosive growth of food products designed to tempt us into a constant habit of chomping.
In order to feed this never-satisfied appetite, the food industry has devoted itself to devising an endless supply of new snacks.
By the late '80s, 2000 new snack products a year were hitting the market. The biggest takers were schoolchildren, despite the fact that, as Critser points out,
"a perpetually snacking child is literally a walking talking fat-making machine one that knows no limits".
THE great missing piece of the equation is exercise — not that exercise could entirely undo the harm done by a constant drip-feed of fat and sugar. Television has undone us all. The more we watch it, the less we exercise. It's a big fast-food propaganda machine. It tells us to munch crisps, chocolate and ice cream, and feed the family on pizzas and burgers. It sends us relentlessly to the fridge and to the microwave.
And it's yet another reason why certain sections of society suffer more obesity than others.
Not only do poor families eat worse food and exercise less than well-off families, they also lack the facilities, the knowledge and the support systems that would help them take care of their health.
But if the fat people of America are giving us an awful warning, the thin people of America — especially in health-conscious California — are showing us a way forward.
It means getting off our sofas and taking action. It means parents taking control of their children's diet and exercise habits — and their own.
The attempt to sue the food giants may have failed this time, but it has served to turn the spotlight on the way that generations of children have been deliberately targeted and hooked into a way of eating that is mortgaging their future to disease and disability.
It should worry us all that, after Santa Claus, the second most recognisable figure to children is Ronald McDonald.