Chew On This: America’s Epidemic of Fast Food and Obesity

By Scott McKinney, MS

As America continues to expand its technology and wealth, so too does the waistline of its people. The obesity epidemic in the United States is one that continues to increase at a dangerous rate. It cannot be blamed entirely on that of the fast food industry; but this industry owns a plethora of fault. As Americans acquire more technology and better living conditions it seems they cannot simply enjoy the time that should be allotted for play and recreation; instead they find themselves working harder and wanting more. Fast food is merely an easy fix for a primitive urge that envelopes the fast-pace life of the average American. Unfortunately, with this fix comes consequences; consequences which are devastating to the lives of adults and their children. It is estimated that nearly one in five Americans are obese. If current trends continue it is predicted that 58% of the world’s population will be obese by the year 2030.

It is estimated that today one in five Americans are considered obese as mentioned previously. One in five… Only a decade ago the ratio was one in eight obese Americans, showing the progression of this epidemic. It is also estimated that kids get up to 40% of their meals from fast-food chains, convenient stores, and restaurants; a staggering figure when you calculate the amount of meals this actually is. In a week, based on three meals a day, one eats 21 meals; this would mean that of this 21 over 8 are from these establishments. To help the situation; 13% of the schools in America where kind enough to put fast-food franchises within their facilities for children to enjoy. This act of kindness from America’s outstanding education system helps lead its people to the 300,000 deaths that occur each year due to obesity-related problems. These places don’t have to exist within schools to be a problem, but how are outside businesses contributing you might ask. In a study done in Chicago that used geocoded databases of restaurants and school addresses to examine locational patterns of fast-food restaurants an interesting correlation was found. The median distance from any school in Chicago to the nearest fast-food restaurant was 0.52 km, a distance that can be walked in a little more than 5 minutes. It found that 78% of the schools had a fast-food restaurant within 800 m of its location (approximately 8 football fields). The study found that fast-food restaurants were significantly clustered in areas within short walking distance from schools, with an estimated 3 to 4 times as many fast-food restaurants within 1.5 km from schools than would be expected if they were dispersed throughout the city unrelated to schools (Austin, Buka, Gortmaker, Melly, Patel, Sanchez 2004).

In 1963 the average 10-year-old girl weighed 77 pounds and today we see the same girl that age on average weighing in at 88 pounds; boys went from 74 to 85. Today obesity triggers more health problems than even smoking or drinking. Only 2% of the children in America eat a proper diet as defined by the USDA. One might find it interesting that in 2006 more than 250,000 children under 6 exceeded the weight standards for regular car seats; now they have come out with “husky” car seats. Soft-drink consumption has increased over 300% the last 20 years helping children consume nearly 20% more calories than a generation ago. One-fourth of all vegetables eaten in the United States are French fries or chips and one-fourth of all Americans eat fast-food at least once a day (Ward 2008).

It is obvious that the United States has problems when it comes to obesity and it doesn’t help that the people of this country are targeted at such a young age. One study shows evidence of marketing to children to boost sales in the fast-food industry. Researchers conducted a study asking 63 children (age 3.5-5.4) to taste five pairs of identical foods and beverages; each pair was divided into branded packages and were marked as coming from McDonald’s or unbranded. The kids were then asked to identify which foods tasted better. The unbranded foods lost all the taste tests (IDEA Fitness Journal 2007). Okay people let’s face the music; fast-food is one of the common causes of obesity in the United States; it doesn’t take a biochemist, neurologist, or Steven Hawkins to figure this out. Fast-food is only a pawn in this crisis, and the real issues unfold as we look into the effects obesity has on many aspects of a person’s life.

Physically, mentally, and financially; obesity can be thought of as a sort of tape worm. Imagine obesity as this entity in one’s life that drains everything one works for; this can be seen in the tolls it puts on a person. Physically obesity is deadly and causes many ailments; some are just irritable while others take years from one’s life. High blood pressure can arise due to the additional adipose tissue in the body needing more oxygen and nutrients to survive. This requires the blood vessels to circulate more blood to the tissues increasing the workload of the heart; which now has to pump blood to even more tissues. Diabetes, commonly type II, is caused by obesity due to the insulin resistance built from a diet with excess amounts of sugar. Heart disease is associated with obesity as well. Atherosclerosis is present 10 times more often in people that are obese and cause other adverse effects. Obesity can affect the joints, especially the hips and knees, and while joint replacement surgery is surely common; the replaced joints are not recommended for obese persons due to their higher risk of loosening and causing further damage. Some obese persons experience sleep apnea and respiratory problems. This is due to the added weight of the chest walls squeezing the lungs causing restricted breathing. Sleep apnea is also associated with high blood pressure. Obesity has been shown to be connected with many kinds of cancers including breast, colon, gallbladder, and uterus cancers; men who are overweight have a higher risk of colon and prostate cancer. Obesity is widely known to be associated with metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of many abnormalities; often associated with obesity individually, and is a complex risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

These are just some of the many effects that obesity has on one’s body and the reason that obesity contributes to so many deaths in the United States each year. It is also interesting to note, that not only do the meals eaten by fast-food restaurants have a direct effect on a person’s weight but the soft drinks commonly associated with these meals have adverse effects as well. It was found that sugary soda and processed buns can block the absorption of proteins in one’s diet; this can be detrimental to one’s health (Men’s Fitness 2007). During the ongoing Framingham Heart Study researchers also found that soft-drinks, whether regular or diet, contribute to metabolic syndrome. It found that drinking as little as one can, of either kind, per day could increase one’s risk for metabolic syndrome by as much as 48% (IDEA Fitness Journal 2007). Research has been shown over and over again that obesity and fast-food are negative things if not controlled; the problem is that this epidemic is not getting any better. In the United States teenagers have higher rates of obesity than in 14 other countries; 30% are overweight and 15% are obese. For sake of the argument please note that the disease formerly known as “adult-onset diabetes” is now called “type II diabetes”. Notice the constant reference to America’s youth; this is because the root of the problem most often starts here and research shows that 70% of children who are overweight will remain so throughout their adulthood (Harper 2005). As if the physical effects from obesity aren’t enough to make one run to the gym, the impact it has on a person’s wallet can be just as severe.

Each year obesity-related conditions cost over $100 billion dollars and cause an estimated 300,000 premature deaths in the United States alone. Often people do not put much thought about the effects of obesity on their budget but there are many ways with which it can be affected. People who are overweight predictably pay more for both life insurance and medical coverage due to the risks involved with their weight. Possibly, the best example of this impact can be seen in research done by Gold’s Gym in an attempt to promote their business. They calculated the costs of someone being overweight based off of the median U.S. salary of $48,451 dollars. They concluded that just being overweight cost the person an average annual amount of $8,550 dollars. Contributing factors include cost of travel, cost of clothes, loss of wages due to ailments, and excess fuel used due to the added weight. That amount is nearly 18% of one’s wages and a good reason for anyone to be depressed.

Scott McKinney is the Vice President at Midwest Institute for Addiction. He holds a Master’s degree in sports rehabilitation and a degree in exercise physiology. He is nationally certified in strength and conditioning and corrective exercise. Scott has directed fitness facilities, trained trainers, and taught as a professor in biomechanics.

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