Fast Food and America's Obesity Problem
Obesity is a common, serious and costly problem that impacted American society. More than one-third of American adults, which is about 35,7% of the population, are obese. Obesity leads to heart diseases, strokes, diabetes (type 2) and some types of cancer. Medical costs for fighting this problem amounted to $147 billion in 2008. Obese people, in average, paid $1,429 higher for their medical treatment than those of normal weight (Overweight and Obesity). At the same time, the problem of obesity and obesity-related diseases in the US skyrocketed over the past 30 years. It was during the same period that the number of fast food restaurants in the country more than doubled. This paper will undertake a research dedicated to the problem of obesity and possible influence that fast food has on the US population. It will also present some possible solutions to this problem.
The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) conducted a survey in 2009-2010 and provided the following data brief on obesity prevalence in the United States (Ogden et al. 3). In 2009–2010, more than 35% of American men and women were overweight. The data showed no significant difference between men and women of various ages. The statistics show that more than 78 million adults and nearly 12,5 million children and adolescents in the US had problems with extra weight at that time. The highest obesity rate was observed for the non-Hispanic blacks - 49,5%. Mexican Americans showed a lower rate – slightly above 40%, while all Hispanics had almost 39,1% and non-Hispanic whites – nearly 34%.
The analysis of socioeconomic status and obesity rates showed some interesting results that may be helpful in this research. While women with higher income are less likely to have extra weight than those with low income, the statistics showed that Mexican American and non-Hispanic black men with higher income tend to be more obese than those whose income is lower (Overweight and Obesity).
A rightful question that arises when the issue of extra weight is discussed – what is obesity? It can be defined as being significantly overweight. Being overweight is not yet regarded as being obese. If the person’s body weight is 20% or more above their usual weight than a person is considered to be obese (Dangers of Being Overweight). There is a grandmother’s method to find out what a person’s ideal weight is. One hundred is deducted from height in centimeters and the remaining figure should indicate a person’s ideal weight. NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics) offers another method based on BMI (Body mass index) calculation. It is determined in the following way: a person’s height in meters is squared and rounded to one decimal place. Then a person’s weight in kilograms is divided by the result. Adult obesity was determined as BMI more or equal to 30 (Ogden 6).
Obese people can have some serious health problems. One of them is coronary artery disease (CAD). It is the number one killer in America, it is a medical condition caused by the buildup of plaque on the inner side of coronary arteries. They are blood vessels that supply blood rich in oxygen to the heart muscles. Poor flow of blood can lead to “starvation” of heart muscles and pains in chest. When blood flow is completely blocked, consequently, it can lead to a heart attack (Coronary Artery Disease). Another serious health problem caused by obesity is high blood pressure. It is a condition when the force of blood working against artery walls is excessively strong and can damage blood vessels and lead to stroke (High Blood Pressure). Another dangerous medical condition in obese people is type 2 diabetes. Excessive fat develops resistance to insulin in a person’s body. As a result, body cells cannot get enough energy (Dangers of Being Overweight), while high glucose level can damage blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, the nerves, and heart.
Obesity is caused by many factors. While most researchers agree that smoking, age, medicines, emotional factors, health conditions and genes may contribute to weight gain; it is indisputable that the main cause of obesity is the lack of energy balance. That means that a person receives more energy from food and drinks than his/her body can use. If a person sustains a healthy energy balance then no loss or gain of body weight occurs.
The above factor is mainly caused by inactive life style. Many Americans are not very active physically. They spend long hours in front of their computers and TVs. Statistics show that more than two hours a day of TV viewing results in becoming overweight and/or obese. Using cars instead of walking, lack of physical activity also contribute to weight gain. Inactive people are more likely to become overweight or obese since they do not burn the calories that they receive from food and drinks (What Causes Overweight and Obesity).
The question is how fast food and obesity are related. The intake of fast food has grown five-fold since the 1970s. There are seven fast foods that contribute to obesity: doughnuts, cheeseburgers with French fries, chicken nuggets and fried chicken, ready to eat lunches, sugary cereal, processed meats, and canned soups. They contain a lot of calories. For example, a McDonald’s cheeseburger has about 300 calories, an average doughnut – 400 calories, and one serving of French fries – about 240 calories. Cheeseburgers contain LDL cholesterol that clogs arteries (Fast Food Obesity), trans fats, and sodium. The latter is capable of water retention and causes weight gain. Cereals have large quantities of added sugar and processed meats contain sodium nitrate. Some recent studies showed that sodium nitrate causes cancer. Many delicious fast foods have saturated fats that contribute to heart attacks and stroke.
The worrying factor is that the current methods of preparing fast food look more like they came from food engineering or food technology books. Except for a few products, most fast food comes to restaurants canned, frozen, dehydrated, or freeze-dried. Things that occur in fast food kitchen contribute only to the final stage of that mass production complex system. Some foods that seem familiar may have been absolutely reformulated. Eric Schlosser states, “Things that we eat have changed more in the last forty years than in the previous forty thousand”. In our days, fast food producers use remarkable technological developments that hide advances behind an ordinary-looking façade. The aroma and taste of American fast food is presently produced at a series of large chemical plants.
José T. Bravo, Executive Director of the Just Transition Alliance, Chula Vista, California, states that there are some “scientific evidence proving that certain chemicals block human hormones and disrupt the body’s normal functions”. Those chemicals are known as “endocrine-disrupting” and represent the class of toxins including dioxin, many plasticizers, some pesticides, and some other chemicals. They play a significant role in the global expansion of obesity. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may cause obesity are the following: atrazine (common weed killer that contaminates water supply), phthalates (plasticizers present in plastic, shampoos, cosmetics, paints and many other man-made chemicals), and bisphenol A (found in plastic water bottles, lining of cans for soft drinks).
Who is responsible for obesity in the US? Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2006, reporting that about 20% of Americans eat at fast food restaurants at least two times a week. Fast food companies compete with each other to win customers offering bigger and bigger portions. Such expression as “super-size me” was not even known a few years ago (Fast Food Statistics and Obesity in America). Food advertisements are intended to tempt the appetite, fast food restaurants are located within a walking distance or food can even be delivered. In modern society, fast food is everywhere.
As mentioned above, the issue of obesity is often tied to the rapid growth of the number of fast food restaurants. What is the definition of a “fast food restaurant”? There is no common definition of fast food restaurants. While some define fast food as “inexpensive food, prepared and served quickly”, everyone agrees that prominent chains such as McDonald’s can be called fast food restaurants. There is another definition of fast food restaurants: they are fast food establishments that do not offer table service (Currie 31). There is another definition of fast food restaurants: they are “establishments that have a limited menu, disposable wrappings or containers, no table service, and items heated quickly or prepared in advance”.
Deborah Cohen in her article A Desired Epidemic: Obesity and the Food Industry wrote that the food industry uses billions of dollars annually to develop products, packaging, advertising and marketing techniques to entice customers to buy more of their food since selling more food signifies making more profits. People are constantly prompted to buy products that they do not need, and that includes food. Every year, big companies earn millions of dollars while using research methods of advertising similar to Burger King and McDonald’s. The latter was accused of enticing children with their happy meals and play places. Other food companies use similar strategies. They attach promises of satisfaction combined with slogans that melt grandmas’ hearts (Stanish).
As seen from the research, obesity is a serious and costly problem that impacted American society. More than one-third of American adults, which make about 35,7% of the population, are obese. Obesity is defined as having body weight 20% or more above ideal weight. Obese people can develop some serious health problems such as coronary artery disease (CAD), which is the number one killer in America. Two other diseases mentioned in this paper, which are rampant in America now, are high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. The main cause of obesity is the lack of energy balance, which is caused by inactive life style, since many Americans are not very active physically. There are seven fast foods that contribute to obesity: doughnuts, cheeseburgers with French fries, chicken nuggets and fried chicken, ready to eat lunches, sugary cereal, processed meats, and canned soups. The current methods of preparing fast food look more like they came from food engineering or food technology books. Fast food contains such undesired chemicals as sodium nitrate, trans fats, LDL cholesterol that contribute to weight gain and cause serious diseases. About 20% of Americans eat at fast food restaurants at least two times a week. Fast food companies compete with each other to win customers offering bigger and bigger portions. They use advertising and marketing techniques to entice customers to buy more of their food since selling more food means making more profits. It is obvious that fast food companies play a significant if not leading role in aggravating the problem of obesity. Moreover, obesity, in its turn, causes many health problems to American people.
There are several factors that can help to alleviate this situation. One of them is to enforce laws causing fast food companies to introduce healthier foods in their establishments. Fast food culture has become an integral part of American society. It is impossible to change the habit of eating at fast food restaurants, but it is possible to change people’s food preferences. American people need to be educated in the issues of “eating right”. Various educational programs introduced in schools, public offices, and at work places can bring good results. Government, NGOs, churches, and other organizations should work hand in hand, encouraging people to lead active and healthy life styles. The above methods helped to change the situation with smoking in the recent past and, undoubtedly, will help to change the situation with obesity in the near future.