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This week's death of Blair River, the 575 pound spokesperson for the Heart Attack Grill is disturbing to be sure. First and foremost because this young man was only 29 years old. This means that he lived a scant 11 years as an adult and this kind of story always makes my heart ache.
There was a tremendous amount of press surrounding Mr. River's death because of his role as a morbidly obese man pitching a restaurant that profiteers from today's tremendous problem with weight gain in America. Founded by Jon Basso, who uses the moniker "Dr. Jon," the restaurant serves burgers and fries with no limit on the calories, fat or salt. The specialty of the house is the Bypass Burger - single through quadruple versions. The Quadruple Bypass Burger allegedly contains over 8,000 calories (a claim that I don't see supported by their menu).
This young man didn't succumb to a heart attack or another disease that we normally associate with obesity. Rather, it is said that he died from complications related to influenza and pneumonia. While not the sort of thing that you think of as an illness of obesity, the fact is that being obese increases your risk of dying after contracting influenza by four times.
Dr. Jon has taken some licks in the media since opening his restaurant, but I am here to say that I admire him. What's that? Did I say admire?
Yes - but not for his silly restaurant and certainly not for what appears to me to be unabashed greed. No, I admire him for his honesty. Sure, it's sick to create a restaurant such as this and even more twisted to offer free food to those over 350 pounds. Even so, Mr. Basso is totally unabashed about promoting his restaurant as "nutritional pornography" and "so bad for you it's shocking." At least he admits it. At least patrons know what they are getting into when they walk through the door.
Compare this with Chili's Bar and Grill. They would never admit that their food is "nutritional pornography." Not in a million years. Yet it is just as bad for you as that found at the Heart Attack Grill. Their Texas Cheese Fries with Jalapeno Ranch dressing come in at over 2,000 calories and a Southern Smokehouse Burger has almost 2,100 and 41 grams of saturated fat. Of course it's not just calories or saturated fat. The amount of salt in their seemingly healthy Asian Salad with Grilled Chicken borders on the absurd at almost a teaspoon and half. (Try adding that much salt to your salad and see if you can actually eat it.)
It's not just Chili's restaurant. There's Denny's, Applebee's, Chevy's and P.F. Chang's in the same chain restaurant category. And the fast food restaurants aren't any better. Yet none of these will admit to being "so bad for you it's shocking" even though they are just that.
In this excerpt from an ABC interview, Mr. Basso attempts to glorify his position:
Before owning the grill, Basso owned a Jenny Craig franchise and a fitness center, and says that despite pouring "his heart and soul into the diet and exercise industry," he didn't feel like he was reaching anyone. "I'm making more inroads now into people's consciousness by working the other side," he says.
This is patently absurd. In my opinion the Heart Attack Grill doesn't make any inroads into or advance the debate on obesity. It simply serves up junk food and glorifies excess for the purpose of making money. That's not a noble cause and nothing he can say makes it one, but at least he admits to harming his patrons, which is more than one can say for the presidents of Chili's, KFC and McDonald's.
We should certainly feel grief for Blair River, his family and friends, including Mr. Basso and his staff. We should not, however, see purveyors of food such as sold at the Heart Attack Grill in a benevolent light. There's simply no way to think of that mission as honorable.