America Is So Fat Because of All the Fast Food We Eat

The news media tends to associate obesity with fast food. The role of fast food in the development of obesity is of particular concern among children and adolescents (ages 2-19). Obesity stories on television or movie documentaries show a short video loop of nothing but huge people walking around about their business. Such footage is extremely misleading as the people filmed most if not all of whom are extremely obese (a BMI of 40 or higher, which represents less than 7 % of the population). Meanwhile an unseen voice is telling us that more than one-third of us are obese. The contrast between the footage and the commentary gives those of us who are overweight and obese comfort as we are not nearly as fat as they are!

Between the years of 1977 and 1998 adolescents and children increased consumption of calories from sodas, hamburgers, and French fries. During this time period the calories consumed in restaurants, both fast and not-so-fast food, increased from 4.8 % to 14.8 % with a decline in calories consumed at home from 75.2 % to 64.2 %. Studies suggest that obese children do not tend to consume more calories at fast-food outlets than non-obese children, but the heavier child may not burn off their calories as readily as a thinner one. Increased consumption of sodas, fats and oils, and sodium regardless of the source was associated with an increased incidence of obesity in children. An increased consumption of low fat milk, other dairy products, fruits, and vegetables was associated with lower incidence of obesity.

Major fast-food restaurant chains are much more accessible than major supermarket chains which provide access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. People in poverty are much less likely to have a vehicle to get to the supermarket and thus become isolated in food deserts. A food desert is described an area with no supermarket within a one-mile radius and is usually characterized by easy access to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. It is clear that people in impoverished minority groups are more likely to be overweight or obese than those in the middle class. Also, neighborhoods with fast-food restaurants are more likely to be poor and heavier than those with less fast food and more opportunities for walking available.

The fast-food industry would point out that shutting down their restaurants in impoverished areas and building better recreational facilities in those disadvantaged neighborhoods would not likely lead to dramatic losses in weight. Likewise, representatives would argue that more fast-food restaurants and reduced walkability in the “healthier” neighborhoods would not necessarily lead its inhabitants to start gaining weight. Spokespersons would probably say that their wealthier clientele is more likely to have a motor vehicle and that there is a drive-thru less than a mile away from about 75 % of Americans in cities or the suburbs.

While obesity is increasing in America, it is growing even faster around the world. Although the fast-food industry is expanding to other countries, particularly in big cities, obesity is growing rapidly even in areas where fast food is not yet readily available. It is difficult to blame fast foods when countries like China have seen dramatic increases in obesity recently. Although McDonald’s and other American fast-food chains have infiltrated Beijing and Shanghai, obesity precedes fast foods in rural China. Increased time spent with computers and television leads to decreased physical activity and greater exposure to snack foods. Dietary reasons for obesity in rural China include increased consumption of meat and high-calorie food with the percentage of calories coming from fat and protein increasing at the expense of calories coming from carbohydrates. There also may be a genetic component as BMI tends to underestimate body fat accumulation in the Chinese population.

I must confess that I occasionally enjoy fast food, particularly when I am traveling. When I was at a convention in Chicago I ate lunch daily at a McDonald’s. The obesity epidemic was on my mind as I wolfed down my food. With a sudden burst of insight I noted that there were very few fat people eating around me. Most customers were reasonably thin like me. Many of the staff were obese, but obesity was the rare exception among the customers. I made similar observations at McDonald’s in New Orleans and Las Vegas.

Certainly unrestricted consumption of fast food is obesogenic, but is fast food the major reason we are becoming so fat? I think that it is more complicated than what we read in blogs or hear in the media. The conclusion from my McDonald’s experience is that fast-food restaurants don’t necessarily make people fat. I was shocked to learn that I was straddling the borderline between being normal weight and overweight. People classified as overweight or obese were a whole lot thinner than I originally imagined. The obese people we see on TV or in movies like Supersize Me are not representative of obese people in America. I suspect that fast food is contributing to obesity in American youth but less so in the adult population. It is prudent for frequent fast foodies to cut back on menu items, particularly when other factors point to unwarranted weight gain, but the numbers don’t add up. It is not mathematically possible for 15-18 % of our calories coming from fast-food restaurants to cause 67 % of our population to be overweight or obese. Too much fast food is partly responsible for the fattening of America and the world, but it may be that we are just eating too much food in general.

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