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June/July 2002
Eating Ourselves to Death

By Rachel Cernansky



Obesity is a serious health threat in this country, and is becoming increasingly dangerous. It isn’t just a threat to personal self-image; it is linked to some 300,000 deaths a year and now rivals smoking in its contribution to mortality; and the number of severely obese children has doubled since 1980. It is associated with chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer, and Surgeon General David Satcher reported that our obesity-related costs totaled an estimated $117 billion last year alone. The parallel between the growing popularity of fast food and the increasing prevalence of the associated health repercussions is alarming.

The epidemic is attributed to many factors, but fast food is most certainly high on the list of culprits. The numbers speak for themselves: as a nation, we spent $110 billion on fast food in 2000, compared with $6 billion in 1970. Present everywhere, even in schools, the fast food culture that our nation has become is depleting the state of our health and our future. Satcher has called for the removal of fast food from schools, a “call to action” which, beginning next school year, has seen success so far in Texas and California with the ban of soft drinks, French fries and sweets in public schools. Schools have been a target for the fast food industry because of their huge market potential, a market that has showed a return more immense than even the industry expected. In addition to the tremendous sales within the schools’ defined borders are lifelong habits being formed—fast food addictions that will keep these children coming back, even when they’re not required to sit through corporate-sponsored educational programming (20 percent of which are straight commercials) and fed McMeals in the school cafeteria.

Average portion sizes are also to blame, a growing trend that has also been pushed most forcefully by the fast food industry, because the low cost to restaurants of providing bigger portions makes for a great and hugely successful promotional tool. Upon a survey of serving sizes nationwide, the vast majority of food servings exceed the recommendations of both the FDA and the USDA, with foods such as French fries, hamburgers and soda now two to five times larger than their original sizes, and the average restaurant cookie measuring 700 percent larger than the recommended half-ounce serving of the USDA. Coupling larger portions with fattier foods is a dangerous combination: a single McDonald’s sandwich runs anywhere from 280 to 590 calories each, with a meal combo often totaling 2,000 calories, which is the equivalent of an entire day’s calorie intake as recommended by the USDA (which is even less for children—only 1,600 calories per day). Also, health-conscious people shouldn’t be fooled: a complete meal from the selection of ‘healthier’ items hovers upwards of 600 calories. But no worries, says McDonald’s. Straight from their literature: “McDonald’s can be part of any balanced diet and lifestyle…there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. It’s your total diet that counts.”

The blame is often placed on the people and their own poor food choices; but so many don’t know better—or at least, not how bad fast food really is—and many simply cannot afford better. In most lower-income communities, there are substantially fewer grocery stores and more fast food joints than there are in middle-income neighborhoods, making fresh vegetables scarce and expensive while cheap burger-and-fries meals are aplenty. Moreover, women of lower economic status are 50 percent more prone to obesity than their wealthier counterparts. And the government’s annual $1 million spent on promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables pales in comparison to McDonald’s $500 million “We love to see you smile” campaign, and even that is but a percentage of its $2 billion annual marketing budget; the power of the government is dwarfed even by Altoids mints, which spends on advertising five times the government’s entire budget for nutrition education.

It’s ironic that as more and more of our dollars pour into the pockets of these fast food pushers dishing out ever-exploding portions, a simultaneously growing percentage of our money is going towards diet and weight loss products, on which we spend an estimated $50 billion a year. And the irony continues: as we have to try harder to keep off the weight in order to meet the expanding social pressure of an ‘acceptable’ body image, the clothes we buy just happen to be expanding with us, only more subtly so—so that we fit into continuously smaller sizes without losing an inch. Today’s Happy Meal is but an appetizer tomorrow, but it’s okay because today’s size six pants are tomorrow’s size four.


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