Conflicts of InterestFood CompaniesMedia WatchObesity

The men who made us fat – Episode 2

Here we go again! Episode 2 with Jacques Peretti. 24 million of us are now overweight “Our appetites supersized by big business.” This one is all about portion size.

Jacques Peretti goes to Jester’s Diner in Great Yarmouth to find Britain’s biggest breakfast. The owner, Martin Smith, offers Peretti a choice of “The Big Boy” “The Fat Boy” or “The kid’s breakfast.” The latter is the weight of a small child. “Round about nine, nine and a half pounds!” explains Smith. It comprises: an 8 egg cheese & potato omelette; 12 slices of bacon; 12 sausages; sautéed potatoes; mushrooms; hash browns; black pudding; 4 fried bread; 4 toast and 4 bread & butter slices. It costs £15, but you get your money back if you can eat the whole lot in an hour. Smith says that they serve a c couple a day and “get 2 epic fails a day”. No one gets their money back therefore! Perreti is another “epic fail”!

The link to just this clip is here. Worth it just to see the whole breakfast on a platter visually and the Diner owner, who’s a bit of a wit!

Peretti asks: “When did we all start overeating?”

And answers “The answer lies in America…”

Peretti claims that the answer lies in a cinema in Chicago where a man called David Wallerstein had an idea that would change the way we eat for ever (1967). He supersized the popcorn. By making cartons bigger he could charge more – far more than the extra cost. Wallerstein was headhunted by McDonalds. Mike Donahue, VP External Relations 1987-2007 is interviewed for the history at this stage. Wallerstein sat in a restaurant in Chicago and observed human behaviour. He observed that consumers would tip the fries packet into their mouth, something he called “the salt slide” and presented this as evidence that people wanted more and yet would not go back for a second helping. (The deadly sin, greed, would prevent us – we did not want to seem greedy, even if we were).

Wallerstein again realised that, if he could increase the portion size, he could sell more and make more profit. In 1972 a larger fries portion size was introduced at McDonalds. “The world was never going to be the same again” said Peretti. Most of McDonalds costs are fixed – so the cost of a bit more food is negligible compared to the return. Other fast food retailers followed suit.

In 1974 psychology Professor Anthony Sclafani was studying appetite and behaviour at the City University of New York. To do his studies, he needed rats to overeat and gain weight to observe behaviour. However, the rats were not overeating rat food. After trying several different high fat diets the professor raided the grocery store and started to feed the rats candy and cookies and things that humans loved to eat. Given these sugary and fatty foods, the rats did at last overeat and rapidly gain weight. (The difference being, of course, the sugar combination added to, invariably, man-made and not real fats).

Sclafani argues (as many have before) that we are hardwired to consume high energy foods, as this has ensured our survival throughout evolution.

Peretti notes “In the 1970’s less than 2% of UK adults were obese”. (This is correct for the start of the 1970’s. By 1972, World Health Organisation statistics confirm that 2.7% of men and 2.7% of women in the UK were obese).

Wimpy was the UK’s first ‘diner’ bringing burgers and fries to the UK population. Peter Smale, Marketing Director at Wimpy 1976-1983 talked about the arrival of McDonalds in the UK. Counter service came with McDonalds and Wimpy followed suit – a company could take five or six times more money by serving from counters, rather than restaurant tables.

The Sweetheart cup company then suggested to the industry that a choice of cup sizes for drinks should be offered. The offering was ‘bigger sizes means bigger value for the customer and bigger profit for the company’. Both were true. Smale recorded no debate at the time about whether or not this was healthy. He recalls no debate about obesity – on the contrary, World War II was not far from minds and getting more ‘nutrition’ was seen as better than not getting enough. (Interesting to see the confusion between food intake and nutrition. One does not mean the other and, when it comes to junk food, one has virtually nothing to do with the other.)

Taco Bell introduced the value meal. This term is known in the industry as “bundling”. It’s all about getting consumers to spend more. By the late 80’s the pressure was on all fast food outlets to follow suit. The value meal also reduces the number of decisions that the consumer makes at the counter and thus increases throughput.

Back to Mike Donahue, VP External Relations McDonalds 1987-2007: “Every 15 seconds that you reduce in time of delivery in that meal to the consumer adds 1% growth to the company.”

Peretti “Those 15 second would equate to an extra 290 million pounds of sales in today’s figures.”

Hank Cardello, interviewed in Episode 1, appears again – Marketing Director Coca-Cola 1982-84. We can see how far back the McDonald’s/Coca-cola relationship goes back as Cardello describes how drinks were a key part of the “bundling.” Because the consumer has paid for it – they will eat it says Cardello.

The value meal was rolled out globally. Within 3 years it accounted for more than half of all meals sold. Peretti shares some of the value meal TV and cinema adverts that many of us likely grew up with. Burger, fries and a drink for a buck or two – whether in American or Australian currencies.

Value meals soon led to supersizing – Darren Tristano, Executive VP, Technomic suggested that Jurassic Park was one of the first supersizing partnerships – dinosaur size! McDonalds introduced the supersize concept. Staff would deliberately ask consumers if they wanted their meal in a supersize version. Adverts where the man says “Supersize me” were shown to remind us of how it works.

Peretti is then seen carrying a two litre “double gulp” and a bag of crisps bigger than my cat and describes this as “the American snack”. Cut to the very slim, Dr Lisa Young, NY University, who talks us through the different cup sizes available to American consumers. In the 50s we had a normal 8floz size bottle as a soda drink option. Now we have 64floz buckets, offering 800 calories and 50 teaspoons of sugar in one hit.

The idea was that people would compensate after a huge ‘eating out’ meal by needing less at other meals during the day. Dr Barbara Rolls, Penn State University, was one of the first to study the impact of changing portion sizes and found the exact opposite to be true. In the late 1990’s, her study increased the portions that people were served by 50% over an 11 day period. “People just kept overeating day after day by about 400 calories”. Rolls then uses the non-evidence based calorie formula (as 99% of other people in the field of diet and nutrition do) and states “Over the 11 days they accumulated almost an extra 5,000 calories. That’s enough to put on over a pound of body weight.” No it’s not – but the concept is valid. Interestingly Rolls noted that most people didn’t even seem to realise that they were getting bigger portions.

Rolls introduces the concept of energy density/calorie density at this point and noted that people are drawn to energy dense foods (that hardwiring again).

Back to Britain for Peretti and he next meets Brian Watson, Creative Director, Foote, Cone & Belding 1986-2006 (advertising agency). This agency created the “Finger of fudge” advert mentioned in Episode 1. Just enough to give your kids a treat – between meals.

The Yorkie advert was heralded as the one that led the confectionery market to supersize bars – and to imply that each bar was for the one person. Cadbury came out with Chunky to take on Yorkie. Mars came out with a 100g Mars Bar (1985). These bars and adverts targeted adults, but children were not far behind. The Cadbury chocolate Fingers advert was a blast from the past (for me!) – the message was absolutely clear – come up with an excuse to eat chocolate fingers any day, any time of day. They soon became a feature of school lunch boxes.

“By the mid 90’s more than 1 in 10 children were obese.” By 1996 the government could no longer ignore the problem and Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health asked Professor Philip James (love him!) to produce a report on childhood obesity. He studied the food British children were eating and buying.

Prof James: “Children were in a very new world”. They spent £136 million buying confectionery and drinks on the way to and from school. The report went to Tessa Jowell. “Complete silence and then I was asked to go and see her.” Jowell described the report as “extreme” and said “The Food and Drink Federation is anxious to talk to you.”

The next day Professor James was invited to dinner with 14 Chief Executives of British business and “I was harangued for 4 hours as to why on earth I would even think about limited advertising to children when it was the parents duty to work out what was required and they had a basic right to advertise to children. The report was never published by the Department of Health. It was shelved.”

Somewhat ironically, Jowell was later instrumental in restricting adverts during children’s TV programmes, but probably not before further damage was done.

In 2003 the Chief Medical Officer warned of an obesity time bomb and called on food manufacturers to behave responsibly. The parliamentary health committee called an inquiry. Former Labour MP David Hinchliffe chaired the committee. He was interviewed by Peretti and said that he had not realised the power of the ‘food’ industry until he chaired this review. When food companies were interviewed the messages were as follows:

– “It is parents who have to take responsibility for what their children eat.” McDonalds

– “The problem is… the presumption that we are talking about bad foods”. PepsiCo UK (You must have heard of their usual chestnut – there’s no such thing as a bad food – only bad diets. This is also a favourite quotation of dieticians. If I had a Mars Bar for every time I’ve heard a dietician say this I would be super morbidly obese!)

– “As a company over many years we have promoted a healthy active lifestyle” McDonalds.

Hinchliffe recommended that the industry end supersizing. This was proposed as a voluntary measure and the food industry ignored it. The industry view was that it was inactivity that was responsible for the obesity epidemic (this is continually their defence). I have seen this as the standard defence many times – the industry want us to eat as much as we can and then the blame is ours if we don’t do enough to burn off this junk. There are simply not enough hours in the day to burn off the current junk that we eat.

Peretti has certainly come across many of the best people to interview and studies to review. He turns next to the Plymouth group looking at activity and obesity. The work of Professor Terry Wilkin, from the Early Bird Diabetes study, Peninsula Medical School, suggests: “The assumption is that it is the inactivity that is the cause of the fatness. We have studied this very carefully and we cannot find this. What we can find is the reverse. That the fatness reduces physical activity.”

I presented this study in my book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it? – here’s the extract:

The Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, UK, has made some very interesting findings as part of the “EarlyBird Diabetes Study.”[i] The study identified a random sample of the 1995-96 birth cohort from Plymouth. 54 primary schools consented to take part. 307 children (137 girls, 170 boys, mean age 4.9), who started school between January 2000 and January 2001 were chosen for the study. The study was designed to try to understand why some children develop diabetes and others do not. However, it has also provided many invaluable insights into obesity and physical activity along the way.

The Peninsula research team have found consistent evidence for the concept of a ‘set’ activity level. The first study was presented in the British Medical Journal (2003).[ii] The participants were 215 children (120 boys and 95 girls, aged 7-10.5, mean 9 years) from three schools with different sportingfacilities and opportunity for physical education (PE) in the curriculum.School 1, a private school with some boarding pupils,had extensive facilities and 9 hours a week of physical educationin the curriculum. School 2, a village school, offered 2.2hours of timetabled physical education a week. School 3, aninner city school with limited sporting provision, offered 1.8hours of physical education a week. The team said of the results: “Surprisingly, total physical activitybetween schools was similar because children in Schools 2 and3 did correspondingly more activity out of school than childrenat School 1. Among the boys, total activitywas higher in School 2 than in School 1 and School 3 with mean (standard deviation) units of activity a weekof 39.1 (6.8), 34.7 (7.7), and 33.8 (7.8).”

The conclusion was: “The total amount of physical activity done by primary schoolchildren does not depend on how much physical education is timetabledat school because children compensate out of school.”

The study was extended over a longer period of time and the researchers presented updated findings at the May 2009 European Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam. The study group remained of similar size, 206 children, ages 7 to 11, from the same three schools in and around Plymouth. Over the longer study, the private school children had an average of 9.2 hours per week of scheduled activity, children at the two other schools got 2.4 hours and 1.7 hours of PE per week, respectively. Again, the study found that, no matter how much scheduled activity the children were given, they were similarly active overall. The children who had been doing organised PE were doing little outside school. The ones who had less scheduled exercise were more likely to head out on their bike, or play football, after school.

Professor Wilkin’s work was also ignored when he presented his findings to government and his funding was stopped in 2005. (This is the second time I’ve shouted “no way” (slightly stronger words in truth) at the TV tonight. The first was when Professor James was similarly silenced).

By 2005, Britain’s were spending a billion pounds on snacks. Dr Susan Jebb, Nutritional Scientist, Medical Research Centre shared an anecdote about meeting with the Chairman of a food company (we should assume Cadbury from what happens next) and leaving the meeting feeling “elated” that they would end the culture of supersizing. However, as kingsize bars were withdrawn, “Wispa Duo” was launched – two bars in one packet. Ostensibly for sharing, but just as likely to be eaten by one person.

Sharing was the new marketing buzzword – we were supposed to be sharing these larger bars and bags with friends, but we weren’t.

Peretti moves rightly onto the supermarkets at this point and buys a selection of multi buy deals because they are designed to seem great value and we can’t resist them. Buy one, get one free. The deals are always about more. The more we buy, the better the deal. It’s always the processed food on promotion – not the meat, fish, eggs and veg.

Giles Quick is a leading advisor to the food industry. He notes that deals are the battle ground for supermarket supremacy. There is a term used: “expandables” – this means something that we can buy more of without buying less of anything else. (This was a new term to me, but a simple one to understand). If we buy more chicken, we might buy less beef. The industry wants us to buy “expandables” – things that we can eat more of, without eating less of anything else. Crisps, sweets, snacks, junk etc all fall into this category. And the supermarkets claim to be trying to help tackle the obesity, sponsoring change for life and so on.

Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium, is asked if he considers multi buys “supersizing”. No, he doesn’t. He thinks that multibuys are offering people value. Opie thinks a very healthy diet can included confectionery and crisps “with all the clear labeling” that he thinks are on processed products. Opie is in denial.

Peretti sums up by blaming restaurants, retailers and manufacturers for pushing food on us. He’s back at a doughnut store in the US buying an enormous single doughnut the size of a swimming rubber ring! Peretti makes a comment about the size of the thing in front of him. The guy at the counter says “I’m not a doctor, I’m a doughnut salesman” Quite!

Dr Kelly Brownell, Rudd centre for Food Policy and obesity, Yale University, is next. Brownell is calling for a tax on sugar sweetened drinks. Soft drink manufacturers have spent almost $40 million dollars lobbying to try to prevent a soda tax being implemented.

Peretti mentions the Denmark fat tax at this point – quite inappropriately in my view, as real fat is not the enemy.

One in four of us is now obese and we are doing nothing to stop this.

Next week it’s how so called healthy food is making us fat.



[ii] Katie M Mallam, Brad S Metcalf, Joanne Kirkby, Linda D Voss, Terence J Wilkin, “Contribution of timetabled physical education to total physical activity in primary school children: cross sectional study”, British Medical Journal, (2003).

18 thoughts on “The men who made us fat – Episode 2

  • I really disliked this episode, so much so that I haven’t bothered with the third.

    In this episode Peretti’s message changed from it being about sugar, to now include fat as being bad. In the first episode he would use the phrase fattening foods. In this episode, that changed to sugary and fatty foods. His message appeared to be clear in the first episode and in this one it started to create confusion.

    Very disappointed in something that I thought was finally going to get the *correct* message out.

    As for a fat or sugar ‘tax’, ridiculous. It will not prevent people from getting obese, just like it doesn’t stop people from buy cigarettes, alcohol… or petrol.

  • Part 3 is on next Thursday, 12th July. The BBC took it off for Wimbledon – Idiots!

  • Great summary Zoe,
    There is so much nonsense out there to confuse people WRT nutrition especially here in the States.
    For instance, the Government, big business and your doctor/nutritionist still tell you that you HAVE to eat breakfast. I have been skipping breakfast for years now and I’m in the best shape (body & mind)of my life at 47 years old. I follow the leangains protocol and Martin Berkhan just wrote a great article about why you should skip breakfast.

    what is your take on it?


  • I am really enjoying this series (and your take on it) in contrast to the recent HBO series, The Weight of the Nation, in which they essentially adopted the “food” industry’s mantra of not enough exercise and calories in, calories out. This one, in contrast, you can hear the truth if you choose to, which is rare. I was able to view the first episode on Youtube; let’s hope the second makes its way up there too, given the restrictive BBC viewing policies.

  • Jaques Peretti loads his kitchen table with a mountain of starchy, sugary foods, that he got ‘on discount’. He is supposed to be an intelligent man, yet he didn’t notice that ALL of those packages contain sugar and starch. Yet still he bangs on about calories and portion sizes, and includes fat as one of the ‘baddies’. So fat is till going to get blamed, and eventually meat will be more expensive because of a ‘fat’ tax, as is happening in Denmark. I don’t think we can win.

  • Enjoyed the ‘breakfast clip.’ Although is it really a British fry-up? ‘Hash-browns’ are an American addition to the ‘Full-British’. To me that means bacon, eggs, baked beans, black pudding, fried bread, and possibly potato scallops. (It varies throughout Britain.) In Scotland you have Scotch pancakes too. In Wales there are Welsh cakes, and in Stoke you get oatcakes. In some parts of the Midlands you have crepes and maple syrup. I don’t think I would take on their challenge. It’s a waste of food at the end of the day, and waste annoys me. I would probably like to treat myself to their smallest ‘large’ brekkie’. But 9 lbs of just bacon, eggs and tinned tomatoes? I might have a go at that! Three month’s supply of Full-Montys in one sitting. Lead me to it… Phew!

  • Hi Zoe, had purchased your Harcombe Diet for Men book some time back and found it very informative for me.

    Zoe, a week ago I was in a store and it was selling coke bottles from when I was a kid, as a collectible.

    My step-daughter was absolutely shocked about how small they are. Her words were “THAT quenched your thirst???”

    I just told her no amount of pop actually quenches thirst, for us it was a little treat.

    And thats it isn’t it? We allowed small amounts of poison (sorry not pulling punches) into our diet and food advice calling them “little treats”. I find today the pressure is on us, the parents, to include an abundance of little treats in a child’s diet or we are “denying them” a childhood. It has gotten so bad I once posted on facebook I finally got my spousal consent to throw out all junk food in the house, and all 3 people that responded were doing so to defend the children’s right to daily garbage food.

    I think its more insiduous than “I know I shouldn’t eat this”, to becoming food is an expected source of pleasure. One of those sugary bombs is the right and proper reward when a child behaves well.

    Last week I volunteered to bring the snacks for a kids soccer game. At the start of the game, another parent pulled out about 24 freezy pops. The kids went nuts. He then started giving the kids including his own, mountains of Gatorade! These are 5 year olds doing a 4 minute game of soccer, most of it spent waiting for their turn to play.

    The other parents applauded his wisdom at keeping the kids “hydrated” with frozen sugar, and energy drinks. I had brought water but with all other kids allowed to have freezies, its very hard to tell your own “Im sorry, we have water”.

    My snack? Beautiful local calabrese sliced sausage, wonderful quality cheddar and goadas, and some fruits. I also had a few granola bars which I tossed in mostly to get them out of the house LOL. The same wise crowd made very snotty faces when they saw what I had brought for their children. I actually told one guy, well you had no objection to fillng my kid with sugar, at least I am filling yours with protein.

    So while the supersize and snackng arguements make sense, I feel we have gone beyond that. We view food as damaging and less damaging, because we eat almost totally for pleasure now. We do not want to “deny” our children by giving them milk instead of chocolate milk so most people, I think, purchase food based on what is likely less damaging instead of what is healthy.

    There has been an obvious and successful engineered culture shift to this point, its so bad that even our food guides suggest snacking (but do not make it the focus of the diet). However the same people advise eating 6 meals a day and who has time for that from scratch? 3 of those meals are snacks. And likely 4 with breakfast being primarily poured from a box.

    Keep up the great work across the pond Zoe.


  • This was my favourite TV viewing this week – and you have summed it up perfectly (of course)! Keep it coming!

  • Frigtening how the government has no interest in stopping the obesity epdemic. I guess reducing advertising food to kids makes no difference now – every kid knows about MacDonalds and Cadburys. I don’t know how I’m going to cope if the UK introduces a fat tax – unless it were a fat tax on everything that contains sugar as well. But it sounds like the sugar corporation runs this country. I get so annoyed when they want to blame everyone else for their bad diets – yes, some of it is personal responsibility but I need to be abale to afford my diet! Why don’t they want to stop insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes? Do they actually want to kill off some of the population?
    I couldn’t help thinking about the bloke I saw on another programme who drank two litres of diet Coke a day and woke up one morning, blind. He had type 2 diabetes, and didn’t realise that asapatarme was raising his BG’s. He recovered his sight, but obviously now has type 2 diabetes to cope with. But drinking two litres of sugar filled soda? GOOD GRIEF!!!

  • Hi Zoe

    Thanks for this and in particular the references at the bottom, they wil be very useful for a project that I am working on at the moment.

    Regarding Kelly Brownell, he has a whole set of free lectures from Yale University at the following link:

    The audience is undergraduate but there still is a lot of useful information. It is best to watch them earlier in the morning before the US has got up as sometimes the download is slow.


  • This documentary illuminated:

    Governments are cowardly; we cannot expect food manufacturers to act in the interest of the health of the nation – they are in business to make a profit; we gravitate toward highly palatable foods and have less control of how much we will eat; children’s activity level hasn’t changed all that much in 30 years (very surprising); supermarkets promote snack foods (because they are cheap and don’t displace the eating of other foods); we can consume ever larger quantities of snack foods because they have few nutrients; it’s hard to over eat real foods; taxing can result in unintended consequences (taxing ‘fattening’ foods will increase the price of my butter); most of us are gullible and a little dumb.

    More discussion of why someone who appears ‘normal’ weight but has too much visceral fat would be useful. Surely this is evidence that food quality is more important than calories. I wish people would focus on eating nutrient dense foods.

  • Thanks for the great overview. Video is so slow, it’s nice to read a good quick summary. Very interesting stuff, and nice to see how popcorn portion size led the revolution and the marketing developments that continually push ‘value’. One thing is that ‘two-for-one’ packages in the supermarket are not just for junk food. I regularly find them on cheese, occasionally on butter and even eggs. For meat and fish, the offers are usually a bit different: any 2 for £5, but the effect is the same. Of all the choices, one will usually be a loss leader, so if you get 2 of that, you save, while the others will actually have you paying more over last week’s price. When it’s and 3 for £10, the cart and start filling up with stuff I hadn’t meant to buy. The savings are usually meaningless, but the psychology is undeniable.

  • ‘This agency created the “Finger of fudge” advert mentioned in Episode 1. Just enough to give your kids a treat – between meals’.

    Quite early in life, I developed the habit of thinking up “counter-jingles” to resist the brainwashing effect of advertising on myself and others. In this case I came up with,

    “A finger of fudge is just enough/ To rot your children’s teeth”.

    I found that quite effective in killing any desire to buy one.

  • Thanks for the synopsis Zoe.

    I was particularly happy with the Yorkie moment. I remember Yorkie coming out and how it changed chocolate forever. Before Yorkie, bars of chocolate were slim and pieces were eaten like delicate morsels. The exception was if you bought the full half-pound bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk that was, at the time, the most monstrously-sized bar imaginable. Consider that a 200g bar is just something that you would pick off the shelf now and that 500g bars are easily available, 1Kg bars at Christmas, down from a previous 2Kg bar and even the giant 5Kg bars that were on sale before Cadbury’s got all PC about it. That was twenty times the size of what was once considered ridiculously over the top.

    Still loving this programme but not quite as good as the first episode,


    • Hi Alex – I agree – not as good as the first one. I did have those 2 OMG moments though when Prof James and then Prof Wilkin described how the government silenced their report/research. And they have the audacity to say they’re trying to do something about obesity?!
      One more to go :-)
      Best wishes – Zoe

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.