The Joys Of Living Large

It is the miracle ingredient in virtually every staple of the American diet, from canned guacamole to Betty Crocker Supreme Chocolate & Toffee Dessert Bar Mix; the key to the quintessential experience of the '90s: mouth feel. Without fat, ice cream would run off the tongue like rain on AstroTurf, and a hamburger would taste like ... well, like the McLean Deluxe, McDonald's low-fat burger that after two years has virtually disappeared from the company's advertising. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in search of substitutes, but nothing duplicates the voluptuous lubricity of real grease oozing from a potato chip as you mash it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Palates trained early on Nacho Cheese Doritos accept no substitutes for fat. It's delicious by itself or spread on a bagel, and best of all, it's guaranteed not to add ugly pounds.

The reason it won't add ugly pounds is that they're not ugly anymore. This is a statistical fact from the NPD Group, an Illinois market-research company, whose most recent poll found that only 36 percent of Americans said they considered overweight people "unattractive"--down from 55 percent in only eight years. "Great news!" says Sally E. Smith, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, who believes the nation-led by the group now known as the Aging Baby Boomers-is seeing a gradual return to the healthy attitude toward food and bodies characteristic of the Gilded Age. Is it just coincidence that last week the diet franchiser Nutri-System was on the verge of bankruptcy, while McDonald's was testing its biggest hamburger ever, the half-pound Mega Mac? According to Louis Harris and Associates, only 51 percent of Americans even make a serious effort to avoid fat in their diets; the number who succeed is naturally lower. Harris found that from 1983 to 1992, the percentage of Americans who were overweight went from 58 to 66-or almost two out of three, the critical mass at which on average any given restaurant table will contain enough votes to override anyone who tries to veto dessert.

Of course, eating fat is bad for youeveryone knows that. But the information has become so diffuse and seemingly contradictory--does anyone remember whether mono or polyunsaturates are the good kind?-that some consumers appear to have given up caring. "Nineteen ninety was the high-water mark for nutritional concern," reports Harry Balzer of the NPD Group. "Since then, every nutritional issue that we've tracked has dropped with the exception of one-checking labels. More and more people are saying they're reading labels. What they're reading for, we're not sure." Possibly they are in search of data related to the newest nutritional wisdom, which emphasizes reducing the proportion of total calories that come from fat. Unfortunately, that carries with it the seed of a dangerous misunderstanding, that the way to counteract a diet high in fat is to eat more of everything else. That might account for the continuing growth in sales of pasta, which can offset several times its own weight in carbonara sauce. There are no statistics on the consumption of fettucine carbonara, but sales of its key ingredient-bacon-increased 4 percent last year.

Bacon! In the 1980s no decent person would admit to eating bacon, except for the little nubbins of pancetta it would be too much trouble to extract from her endive salad. Bacon is all mouth feel, crispy and greasy at the same time-nature's potato chip. The food industry in its ingenuity has bestowed on us fat-free Fig Newtons and Hillshire Farms Lite Polska Kielbasa, but fat, along with salt, is the very essence of bacon. Yet it doesn't even have the excuse of being dessert and, therefore, presumptively irresistible. To eat bacon is a more deliberate assertion of decadence than to polish off a pint of Haagen-Dazs, which everyone is assumed capable of at least once in his life.

For that matter, we're eating more Haagen-Dazs than we used to, especially since the introduction last year of the unimaginably rich Extraas line, which increased the company's market share by a third. A serving of Triple Brownie Overload contains 22 grams-more than the total daily fat intake recommended for a 130-pound woman by Dr. Dean Ornish, the nutritionist who seems to want Americans to live forever.

Still, we have not reached the point where "loaded with fat" is considered a selling point. Haagen-Dazs spokesman Dave Gilman refers euphemistically to meeting the demand for "fun, excitement and surprise" in frozen desserts and to a conscious return by consumers to "full-flavor, hightaste foods." Elsewhere in the dairy case the same qualities are signified by words like "rich," "moist" (applied to cakes), "old-fashioned" and "all-natural." What could be more natural than fat? Did you ever see a cow give skim milk?

Implicit in all this, of course, is the belief that a love of fat is inherent in the human constitution, rather than an artifact of a society that raises its children on Big Macs and large fries. This is not just a biological question, but a sociological one. It enlists on one side most of the medical profession and the $32 billion diet industry, and on the other the small but growing movement for "fat acceptance," which insists it is actually fighting for the two thirds of us who are fat. Sooner or later, almost every American looks down from his Big Mac at his body and the thought hits him: Wait a minute, they're the same stuff.

The question is, what does he do then?