Feasting at the Heart Attack Grill

Debbie says:

Over on change.org, I’ve gotten involved in a surprisingly civil and informed discussion, which started with Josie Raymond’s article (link just above) about the lawsuit between the Heart Attack Grill in Arizona and Heartstoppers in Florida:

The Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Arizona, which has been open for years and is often featured on TV, is suing Heart Stoppers Sports Grill in Delray Beach, Florida, which opened in December. Apparently this country, where two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, just isn’t big enough for two restaurants that joke about killing their customers while slowly killing their customers.

The owners of Heart Stoppers did inquire about a Heart Attack franchise before opening their own place, and the similarities are striking — waitresses at both are dressed as sexy nurses and both offer free food to patrons over 350 pounds.

The restaurants themselves are a lot more interesting than a cease and desist letter. The Heart Attack Grill’s website declares “Taste Worth Dying For!” Menu offerings include “bypass burgers” — the quadruple bypass burger has four beef patties. Burgers, of course, come with “flatliner fries.” At Heart Stoppers, which is run by a former paramedic and is the more medical of the two, eaters can order chili chest pain fries at tables that look like wheelchairs. Salt and pepper comes out of prescription bottles. The menu declares, “Consumption of our food will definitely lead to obesity.”

Not surprising, especially in a blogging category titled (really) “Nutrition and Obesity,” Raymond takes the medical party line on this topic: according to the article, the restaurants are “slowly killing their customers.” Of course, she also disagreed with my initial comment, in which I said, in part:

While I have no patience with either of these restaurant chains and their focus on weight, I’m also sorry to see a change.org blogger making the same mistake.

The real evidence on the relationship between weight and health is almost completely ignored, because of our obsessive social conviction on the subject. While high blood pressure is certainly a health danger, and high cholesterol may be, being over 350 pounds is not.

What is wrong with these Heart-Stopper restaurants is a) that they make fun of a social stigma without understanding it, and b) that they fetishize unhealthy eating. In truth, virtually everyone is better off eating a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruit, and getting exercise. For many people, those choices will equate to losing weight. For others, they will not. Acting as if weight and how we live are completely correlated has resulted in mass shaming of fat people (which you engage in when you say that the public weigh-in is embarrassing), and it seems very likely that shaming of fat people is the real reason for any (if there is any) increased risk of heart disease and stroke in fat people. One convincing piece of evidence for this is the similar increase in heart attack/stroke risk in thin African-Americans.

So far, all of this is standard Body Impolitic fare, and I wouldn’t do a whole post just to point it out. But further down in the comments on Raymond’s article, Harold Lewis says:

No matter how much we complain about such repulsive marketing, if we, as a people, were not morbidly fascinated with our basest appetites, our current economic ideologies would fail.

That comment, in the context of the whole discussion, got me thinking about the way fascination with food, healthy food, and orthorexia actually works. I’m basically a supporter of what we currently define and describe as “healthy eating”: fruits and vegetables, fresh ingredients, home-cooked meals are part of my everyday life and I’m very happy with that. But I also love me some junk food.

I was bemused by the Heart Attack Grill when I read Raymond’s article, but Harold Lewis’s comment helped me understand it. As long as we are bombarded endlessly by ever-shifting instructions on what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, we’re going to be irrational on the subject of eating. And what’s one thing people do when we’re irrational? We act out, and go to the opposite extreme. So of course, some of us are going to be drawn to restaurants that give us permission, in fact beg us, to ignore everyone’s contradictory advice. We’re going to resonate to making fun of the directives we hear every day, whether we try to live by them or not.

The people who are so righteously sure what we should eat are the ones who are making these chains economically feasible–and they’re also the ones raising a fuss because the chains exist. Josie Raymond, you’re part of what you define as “the problem.”

I wouldn’t like the waitresses in nurse uniforms or the “tables that look like wheelchairs.” But I’m also not ashamed or embarrassed at a weigh-in, and if I qualified for the free burger, I’d take it with a grin. And if none of us were embarrassed about our weight, these restaurant chains would probably disappear.