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Fat in America by Rufus Coleman
Summer 2002      

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Healthy fast food

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There seems to be no end to pointing out the obvious when it comes to American obesity.

Through news stories and surveys, we’re kept painfully aware of our weight — 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related health problems, and we spend $117 billion a year as a country trying to deal with it.

Traditional thinking says it’s our own fault, but UNT’s Priscilla Connors says this may not be entirely true.

“We certainly have a level of personal responsibility, but it can also be said that we live in a somewhat toxic environment,” says Connors, a nutritionist and
assistant professor of hospitality management.

Speed of life

Her UNT colleague Edward Lopez, assistant professor of economics, says even though obesity hurts us on a national level, in some ways it’s beneficial in our day-to-day lives. While obesity costs us millions in health care as a nation, individuals can live surprisingly cheaply on what Lopez calls “one of the more visible contributors to obesity in America” — fast food.

“Everyone eats it. And everyone knows it’s not healthy, especially when eaten regularly,” he says. “But it’s cheap and convenient.”

Even with added convenience, our lifestyles are still fast paced, Lopez says. And our diet of fast food is a way we’ve adapted.

“Along with urban sprawl has come longer commute times and more time spent in the car,” he says. “This increases the demand for fast food because the convenience of it fits with a hurried lifestyle. There’s a demand for convenience, so there’s a demand for fast food.”

Size wars

Connors says that to an extent we’ve all been “super-sized” by fast-food chains competing in a “size war.” Chains sell large amounts of cheap food rather than reasonable portions of high-quality food, she says.

A prime example is the size of an order of fries — what was a standard order a few decades ago now belongs in a kid’s meal.

But the real question is which came first: Did fast-food chains increase portion sizes, or did customers demand larger portions?

Connors believes it’s the latter.

“Yes, the fast-food industry is killing us with kindness by providing us with what we want,” she says.

Nutritionists and health experts around the country, many of whom view our obesity as an epidemic, are coming to the same conclusion. And they say laying guilt trips on Americans about their food choices isn’t working.

“We’ve tried for 20 years to change behavior, and it hasn’t really worked,” Connors says. “Now we’re looking at changing the environment. Previously we said to the public, ‘There’s something wrong with you and you’re not motivated enough to lose weight.’ Now we’re trying to approach the fast-food industry and work on changing the menu — telling them to stop being so generous to us.”

Instant gratification

But fast-food diets can’t be the only factor in increasing rates of obesity.

Karen Cogan, assistant professor of psychology, believes we’ve actually done ourselves in with convenience — as we continue to gain instant gratification through technology, we become less active and more isolated.

Our children spend much of their time playing video games, we buy what we want online and we get out to do less than we ever have before, she says.

“We’re so comfortable with getting what we want right away and aren’t willing to inconvenience ourselves,” she says. “Typically, diets alone don’t work. The only real way to control weight is long-term changes in our lifestyles. That includes exercise and healthy eating.”

She also believes Americans seek comfort in food in times of stress and depression.

For example, parents often cheer up children with a cookie or a snack, Cogan says. Early on we learn to eat even when we aren’t hungry.

“Quite often when we eat, it’s not about the food,” she says. “We eat when we’re sad to fill an emptiness, and we eat when we’re happy to celebrate the joy. Food is a comfort. When we feel out of control, eating or not eating is one thing we can control in our lives.”

Mixed messages

Americans also receive mixed messages from television and film, Cogan says. The food industry, including the fast-food industry, spends an estimated $30 billion a year on advertising.

“Part of the struggle is that we are made really aware of our appearances,” she says. “We’re given these images of how we’re supposed to look when faced with buffets and excesses of food.”

Despite how we’re told we should look, the foods that add unnecessary calories to our diet are everywhere. Vending machines in schools bring in millions of dollars but also carry sugary soft drinks, candy bars and other high-calorie snacks at cheap prices. Fast-food restaurants vie for the attention of children with special kid’s meals, toy tie-ins and costumed characters, all for only a few dollars.

Living fat-free

Against all of this, one would think it’s easier to simply accept our fate.

Lopez says the fact is that our obesity serves a purpose — it accommodates the American way of life. The only way to change is for consumers to collectively begin making different choices, he says.

“Markets can respond in a healthy direction, too,” Lopez says. “Look at movie popcorn. A few years ago it was widely publicized that a bucket of movie popcorn had three or four times the recommended daily fat intake.

“Consumers instantly started buying less popcorn, and movie houses started offering air-popped corn. Now butter is added separately.”

Collectively, consumers can change the environment in the long term, but in the meantime we can slowly change our habits, Connors says.

“The twin issues of obesity and weight-related chronic diseases will be with us until steps are taken to change an environment that promotes over-consumption,” she says. “Until then, the best approach is to purchase small portions, augment fast-food meals with fresh fruits, vegetables and water, and, when served too much — throw it out.”

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