We are facing a worldwide epidemic. In industrialized nations all over the world, one of the biggest health threats is obesity. While being a few pounds overweight is not that big of deal, health wise, being obese (more than 30 percent over the ideal weight for a persons height and age) is dangerous. It puts pressure on the heart, lungs, and joints, and can lead to diseases such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and several forms of cancer.
Obesity is caused by a variety of factors, including food type and amount, exercise and activity levels, genetics, water intake, and environmental conditions. But one of the most significant factors is the nutrient content of the food eaten. Eating high amounts of nutrient-poor foods is a sure fire way to gain weight.
Fast food companies excel at selling their products. Through below-the-belt advertising, they lure people into trying their delicious-looking meals. But rather than offering true nutrition, fast food is primarily empty calories comprised of sugar and starch. Fast food companies purposely seek out the cheapest ingredients, and include elements like MSG designed to inspire overeating and make repeat customers.
The Modern Hamburger
Inside of a single fast food hamburger lays a terrible legacy of ecological and dietary destruction. The meat that is used in burgers is usually full of growth hormones and bacteria that interfere with digestive health and metabolism. The flour used in the bun is usually made of genetically modified wheat, which suppresses immunity and digestive functioning. There is usually high amounts of cane sugar in both the bread and the sauce, which over time contributes to the destruction if the digestion, pancreas, and metabolism. The burger probably contains trans-fat, known to raise LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels, cause heart disease, and contribute to obesity. All of this for just a couple dollars or less, which is why they are so popular.
Portion sizes at fast food restaurants are also undeniably oversized. A single extra large order of French fries (chips) can contain more calories and fat than a person is supposed to consume in an entire day. These larger portions are usually either the regular, or so close in price to the smaller sizes that customers usually choose them. These large portion sizes directly increase the waist sizes of people who regularly eat the food.
But most people know that fast food is not healthy. Is it then the companies fault when people become obese because they eat those companies food? What is the responsibility of the consumer here, and the responsibility of the companies?
The Pretty Pictures
This is where the role of advertising comes into question. Fast food companies spend billions of dollars each year promoting their products and cultivating customer loyalty. Much of their advertising is aimed at children, because obese children and teens are highly likely to become obese adults, and eat these products all of their lives.
This type of advertising was once popular in another life-threatening industry the tobacco industry. But with years of effort health supporters were finally able to make it so that cigarettes cannot be marketed to children, nor on television. There have even been several lawsuits against tobacco companies for selling an addictive and deadly product, which sets a potential precedent for making fast food companies be accountable for the current obesity epidemic.
The Nature of Addiction
But there has been little research on the addictive nature of fast foods. They sometimes contain additives that are potentially addictive, but there is limited substantial evidence. So those companies can justifiably claim that their customers eat their food by choice.
But that argument holds no water for people who do not have access to other food establishments, either because of location or income. It means nothing to the millions of people who, for one reason or another, feel like they cannot help themselves and must return to fast food restaurants, even when they know that food is causing them to gain weight.
Choosing to Be Responsible
At present, the burden of effort lies with consumers, to discover for themselves the health benefits and challenges of the food we eat. Ultimately, this allows the companies to do whatever they desire to make a profit, without considering the health of their customers. In this light, and considering the affects of advertising and food additives, the fast food companies are at least partially responsible for the obesity epidemic. But our current global economic and judicial systems are not setup in such as to hold them accountable.
So it comes back to the individual consumer, to take responsibility for our own (and our childrens) health. We may not be able to make fast food companies take responsibility for the damage their products and practices have wrought, but we can take responsibility for ourselves.