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Fast Food Restaurants: Unjustly singled out as the primary cause of the weight crisis in the U.S.


Posted on December 11th, 2009 by Jeff Thiboutot M.S.

It is a common belief that the increase in the availability and frequency of eating at fast food restaurants is a major cause of the current bodyweight and health crisis that is occurring in the U.S. For instance, Schlosser states “…it seems that wherever America’s fast food chains go, waistlines start expanding” (p.242) and a recent article by Craig Morgan in a local paper, which spurred me to write this article, stated “Fast foods’ [from fast food restaurants] ill effects on kids are well documented and real” (p.30). I will concede that fast food restaurants do have a number of items that can have a negative affect on health if eaten often. But, they do have a number of items that can fit into a fairly healthy diet and can actually be included in a weight loss diet. For a good rebuttal to Morgan Sperlock’s Super Size Me you should watch the documentary Fat Head by Tom Naughton.  There is much more that could be said on these topics but that is outside the premise of this article. The premise of this article is that Fast Food Restaurants, such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and others should not be singled out as the major players in the weight and health crises.

It is really the whole processed food industry that needs to be discussed if any “blame” is to be given out. You can get plenty of high sugar, processed “crap” in the grocery store, convenience store, movie theaters, and most any place that food is sold! Not to mention that it is likely that a person will eat MORE food when eating at family type restaurants than at a fast food restaurant. (Brownell, p.37)  Even then there is still the case to be made for personal responsibility. Nobody is making you drink a 32 oz soda (has about 100 grams of sugar) or eat 4 donuts with a coffee that is loaded with sugar and so on. When it comes to kids, parents have a lot of control of what the kids will eat. The problem is that many parents eat poorly; therefore, they are setting a poor example and passing on these habits to their kids. How does a 5 year old purchase a sugar filled soda, or a tub of ice cream, or a jumbo bag of chips or a super size fry? There is no doubt that a lot of marketing and advertising practices are specifically aimed at modify eating behavior. It is clear that a majority of these ads are for products that are not very good for us, particularly in volume. Anyway, there are many reasons, (biological, psychological and social aspects as well as conflicting recommendations from experts and so forth), why people eat what they do and why they eat the amount they do.

Back to the discussion of whether Fast Food restaurants, specifically, are causing the weight problems. The evidence for this view is rather weak. Dr. Glassner, in The Gospel of Food, does a good job of discussing the validity of this issue as well as other hot topics related to food and health (Glassner, 2007). With respect to bodyweight, he states “only a small number of studies have attempted to test the fast-food hypothesis directly, and they have come up with mixed results” (Glassner, p.183). He discusses the details of a number of these papers. I too read these papers and found that the view that eating at fast food restaurants causes weight problems in a lot of people is not very convincing. For example, a 2001 paper in the International Journal of Obesity stated “Overweight status was not significantly associated with FFFRU [frequency of fast food restaurant use] among males and female. Interestingly, BMI was significantly lower among males who reported using fast food restaurants three or more times per week, compared to those reporting less frequent fast food restaurant use” (French et al, p.1828). Another paper on the subject states “…cross-sectional studies did not find any association between fast food restaurant use and bodyweight or body mass (BMI, in kg/m2) in children” (St-Onge et al, p.1069). This final quote, from the St.Onge et al paper, should be considered when trying to  pin the blame on fast food restaurants:

Although longitudinal data are not available concerning increased fast food consumption and body weight changes, one can propose that increases in body weight and increases in fast food and snack consumption are concurrent events that potentially are causally related. However, any reference to causal relations should be made with extreme caution, given that no data are currently available to show such a relation (St-Onge et al, p.1069, emphasis added).

However, the situation is certainly not a bed of roses. For instance, one of the papers previously mentioned stated “fast food restaurant use was associated with greater intakes of soft drinks and lower intakes of fruit, vegetables, grains, and milk” (St-Onge et al, p.1069). Another paper had a similar conclusion “FFFRU is of concern because of its association with lower calcium intake and higher soft drink [non-diet] consumption” (French et al, p.1831). It is more likely that the increase in soft drink consumption, which is available everywhere, is playing a more significant role in the weight and health problems than does the eating at fast food restaurants (St-Onge et al; Bray et al; DiMeglio et al). So it is clear that eating at these types of establishments can negatively affect the quality of the diet. This would certainly not be beneficial for overall well-being. Again, poor eating habits occurs everywhere and poor quality foods, such as soda and deep-fried anything, are available everywhere.

It does seem clear that singling out fast food restaurants as a major cause of our current weight and health problems is not well supported and is a very big oversimplification of the problem. There are some good and bad aspects to this particular vehicle of food delivery. There are ways to dine at these facilities so that is fairly healthy. In fact, as Tom Naugton displayed in his documentary, you can actually lose weight while eating at these types of establishments daily. I will end with a fitting quote from Dr. Glassner “I come neither to praise fast food nor to bury it, only to question its easy portrayal as the root of all evil” (p.146). To make a truly educated decision, I would encourage everyone to start out by reading The Gospel of Food, Fast Food Nation, The Omnivores Dilemma, and watch Tom Naugton’s funny and informative documentary Fat Head.

References:

Bray, G. et al (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr, 79: 537-543.

Brownell, K. & Horgen, KB. (2004). Food Fight: The inside story of the food industry, America’s obesity crisis, and what we can do about it. Chicago. Contemporary Books.

DiMeglio, DP. et al (2000). Liquid versus solid carbohydrates: effect on food intake and bodyweight. Inter J Obesity, 24: 794-800

French, SA. et al (2001). Fast food restaurant use among adolescents: associations with nutrient intake, food choices and behavioral and psychosocial variables. Inter J Obesity, 25: 1823-1833.

Glassner, B. (2007). The gospel of food. New York. Harper Collins.

Morgan, C. (2009, Dec, 2). Unhealthful fast food won’t be an option for my kids. Gilbert News.

Naughton, T. (2009) Fat Head. Morningstar Entertainiment.

Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast food nation: The dark side of the All-American meal. New York. Perennial.

St-Onge, MP. et al. (2003). Changes in childhood food consumption patterns: a cause for concern in light of increasing body weights. Am J Clin Nutr; 78: 1068-1073.

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