At this point, it is common knowledge that fast food is not healthy and nutritious food. Then, why do we continue to purchase this non-nutritious food when we know it is bad for us? Maybe it is because it is addictive, convenient, or inexpensive. Whatever the case is, we are eating ourselves to our own demise. We have entered a war against fast food and we are losing. We have gone away from our own cultures of cooking and now have decided to become part of the processed fatty food system. Over the past 30 years in the United States, the price of fresh produce has increased by 40% while processed foods and soft drinks have decreased by 30% (Keefe, 2016). Right now approximately 75% of foods found in your local grocery store are processed and have added sugar of some kind. In addition, our mothers’ homemade cooking has now been swallowed by the restaurant industry. In 1970, there were around 30,000 fast food restaurants and now there are over 263,944 locations as over 2012 in the United States (Jacques, 2014). Since 2012, I am sure that this number has continued to increase. The fast food industry has combined revenue of well over $100 billion. Not only are fast food restaurants increasing in numbers, they are doing so while targeting the most vulnerable population, children. In 2013, the fast food industry’s main target audience was children and teens. The industry spent $4.6 billion in advertising, with kids being their focus (Orciari, 2013). Scientists are also working to perfect these addictive fatty foods so that we cannot resist them so easily. Before that happens, we have to make a change in the way we think about food. The longer we wait, the unhealthier our American culture becomes.
It is important to take in account the reasons we crave certain food and, in some cases, are addicted to them. Our tongue is coated with 10,000 taste buds that are used to sense four major tastes. The warning sensors to alert us if something probably should not be eaten are the bitter and sour senses, while the two pleasure taste buds are the sweet and salty ones. Fat, on the other hand, is appealing, because it is a very dense dietary energy source. Obviously, the fast food industry targets these senses, allowing them to focus on sweet. They do this by adding sugar and salt and frying things for fat. Sugar, salt, and fat are the three ingredients that food scientists use to try to achieve the “bliss point”. This “bliss point” is the idea that the food is extremely difficult to stop consuming. When eating these addictive processed foods, the reward centers in our brain are activated releasing dopamine. Dopamine releases in the brain during a pleasurable activity and is addictive. Eating food can trigger this dopamine release (Andrews, 2016).
Bigger isn’t Better
There is something about a buffet with a large arrangement of food or an entire plate filled with food that really catches our eye. The American attitude of bigger being better is something that now translates to our plates. We have decided to upsize our portions to the extent that now we can be served double the food and consider that larger portion to be the norm. In the last twenty years, we have really started adapting to the mind-set of “more for less,” not taking into the account the toll it takes on our health. When McDonalds introduced the “super-size” option, the restaurant industry changed with regard to portion sizes. This super size option allowed the consumer to receive two or three times as much food for just a few dollars more. After not much time, other fast food establishments caught onto this concept and soon the normal, large meal became today’s medium meal (Keefe, 2016). This is part of the evidence that we are eating ourselves to death. Regardless of whether we needed these extra calories or not to fuel our bodies, we expected to see the larger portion on our plates.
During elementary school, we learned of the food pyramid that breaks types of foods into categories and specifies how much of each food type is optimal, but often we do not think of the economic food pyramid. Our local supermarkets can be viewed in terms of different economic tiers. Starting at the top is Epicure, which, in my mind, is the billionaire grocery store. Next, we have Whole Foods that is the millionaire grocery store. Then finally, in Florida, Publix and Winn Dixie can be considered to be the grocery store for the public whose incomes are the fifty to hundred-thousandaire grocery stores. Interestingly enough, that leaves an entire group of the general public out. Where do the lower class and middle class people shop for basic groceries? In addition, where does the entire lower class shop? Unfortunately, the answer is that most of the time, the lower and middle class consume fast food. Often, lower-income people live in food deserts and rely on little shops to get other food. Food deserts are defined as places in the country that are lacking fresh vegetables, fruit, and healthy foods. This is mainly due to the lack of farmers markets, grocery stores, and healthy options. Some people define food deserts as not having options like this within a mile. In that case, around 23.5 million people live in what qualifies as food deserts (Gallagher, 2011). Two million of these people do not live within ten miles of a grocery store. There is a direct correlation with the increase in obesity and diabetes with living in food deserts. In a way, you can identify a connection between people who live in poverty and do not have a car, with obesity and food deserts. A study conducted in ten US cities with 1,134 children illustrated that children who experienced poverty by two years old were 1.66 times more likely to become obese by the age of 15 compared to not experiencing poverty (Lee et al., 2014).
Source: “Feeding Kids Well – Food Deserts.”
The food that is available at these little neighborhood markets are often unhealthy. Fresh food does not have long shelf lives compared to packaged processed foods that can last for months at a time. Another food desert is along our national highways. This allows fast food restaurants to capitalize on both poverty and the traveling, road-trip culture we have in America.
America: Land of the overweight
Overweight is defined as a body mass index of 25 kg or over and obesity as a BMI larger than 30 kg. Being overweight or obese is no surprise to people anymore. It is part of the norm actually, with over 70% of Americans being either overweight or obese. With that said, it is not shocking that the obesity rate among youth as well as total populations has increased and that heart disease is the number one killer in America. Obesity now contributes to more healthcare costs than smoking, with an estimated 300,000 deaths each year and over $100 billion in medical expenses. (Rosenheck, 2008). On top of that, Type 2 diabetes rates have tripled in the last thirty years, reaching an all-time high of 29 million people. In addition, another 86 million people are considered pre-diabetic. One in three Americans are expected to have a diagnosis diabetes by 2050. This new American culture of bigger and more for less is slowly killing us. A fifteen-year study that concluded in 2005 monitored more than 3,000 participants between 18-30 years of age and showed a correlation between fast food and weight gain. Participants that ate fast food two or more times a week gained approximately 10 pounds. Not only did they gain weight, but also their insulin resistance was twice as great as the participants that consumed fast food less than once a week (UMN, 2005).
Lobby to be Healthier
New York has identified sugar and sodas as a prime source of obesity. In an attempt to increase health and decrease consumption, New York has tried to implement a soda tax and tried to not allow the purchase of soda with food stamps. Both bills were defeated. Soda companies spent over $10 million on advertising campaigns to help defeat the bills. Mayor Bloomberg implemented a “soda ban” in a way not allowing food service establishment to sell cups larger than 16 ounces. Unfortunately, not only did the ban not last, but it also did not affect outlets such as supermarkets, vending machines, schools, or even convenience stores (Weiner, 2013). The ban lasted a little over a year until the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, overturned it. New York seems to be the only state really trying to work on a federal level to become healthier. Though their restrictions were soon lifted, they took steps in the right direction. Hopefully, New York and other states will try to create more cautionary practices that allow people to become healthier.
What we can do
The root of the problem lies in the government. Large companies spend millions of dollars backing candidates that ultimately influence the regulations for the food industry. If we can prevent these corporations from backing candidates we can work to make a healthier society. Often we do not realize the lobbying power that people hold.
There is still is hope, by pushing restaurants to provide nutritional information. That includes more labels that contain nutritional information on their menus. In addition, by downsizing portions, we could see a difference in the impact of fast food on our health. People will continue to eat fast food; however, studies have shown that by just providing nutritional labels, consumers eat 14% fewer calories. Having correct portion sizes can cut a person’s calorie count down by 30-50% daily (Roberto, 2017). We need to take more initiative and think about the long term implication of the selection of our food at each meal on our health. Simply put, cook for yourself with fresh food and save your life.