I met Blair River just one time in 2010. As I was sitting down to attempt my first-ever Quadruple Bypass Burger, he was just leaving Heart Attack Grill, his friend having finished two of the meaty monstrosities while he himself had just downed three of the regular Bypass Burgers he got for free for weighing more than 350 pounds. He was a 6-foot-8, nearly 600-pound grizzly bear, and he was smiling, filled with the contentment brought about by a satisfying meal.
It wasn't until I learned of his death last week that I realized whom I'd been speaking with. The 29-year-old former state wrestling champion had long been the face of Heart Attack Grill, appearing in the restaurant's commercials glorifying weight and indulgent food. He died last Tuesday, not of a heart attack, but of complications with pneumonia.
It would be foolish for anyone reading of River's death to take the consequences of overeating lightly. According to the Center for Disease Control, obese men have a 40 percent greater risk of pneumonia compared with those of normal weight, and men who were are obese are twice as likely to get pneumonia. The CDC notes that obesity increases the risks of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory problems and certain cancers.
But no sooner had River passed than the talking head emerged to lambast Heart Attack Grill, the culture the restaurant encourages, and the very notion of overeating in general. Jeanne Sager of The Stir voiced outrage at Heart Attack for making light of River's obesity, exploiting him to make sales and encouraging his -- and our -- unhealthy behavior.
"The Heart Attack Grill stepped over the line into being enablers of Americans' worst habits," she says.
River's death is "what happens when you take caring for your body and turn it into a joke. When it's too funny to care about your body, bad things happen."
Meals like those offered by Heart Attack Grill or seen on the Travel Channel's Man V. Food -- or in this blog -- often come under the same attack. As the New Times' resident gourmand, I've enjoyed my share of gut-busting meals as well as my regular share of disgusted critics eager to express their disapproval at my gluttony. They tell me overeating is wasteful, and that these big meals encourage and promote the same behavior that brought about River's death
Eating like I do on a regular basis can and will lead to health problems -- which is why I only attempt such a feat every once in a while, and burn the meal off with regular exercise when I do.
River and Jon Basso, owner of Heart Attack Grill, never made any claim other than that their food is decadent and unhealthy. Basso even told the CBS Sunday Morning show in 2008, "I run...the only honest restaurant in America. Hey, this is bad for you, and it's gonna kill you."
Compare that with McDonald's, where salad, advertised as a healthy alternative, is actually more fattening than a burger.
We can allow River's death to stand as an example of the consequences of overeating, but let's not pretend that the blame for his death lies with a restaurant or with current food culture. No one forced him to eat to excess, and no one is forcing any of us to do the same.
Let's take River's death for what it is: the unfortunate loss of a life yet to be lived. Let's remember that we all have a choice. River chose to eat hamburgers, and he looked happy while he was doing it.