Most consumers would agree that banning fast food restaurants in order to solve our nation’s problems with obesity would be an unwarranted as well as unwelcome action. Few Americans can honestly say that they don’t, at least occasionally, visit fast food establishments. In the last 50 years, consumers the world over have become accustomed to these prolific and convenient enterprises.
In fact, the fast food industry as we know it today grew out of need, and as a direct result of our ever-changing society. Over the last 50 years, families have become more dependent on meals outside of the home; most featuring quick and easy take-out services. There are a number of reasons for these changes, but the biggest change took place as women began opting out of the role of homemaker and entering the work force.
For most families a second income became a necessity. Single-parent households also grew in numbers. In any event, parents were forced to find both more economical as well as convenient meals for their growing families. Families became more mobile and children became involved in more and more activities beyond the school day and outside of their homes. Fast and convenient food choices became the rule of the day rather than the exception.
Is fast food unhealthy?
Fast food isn’t unhealthy by definition. The problem with many fast food choices is the kind of foods offered and the portion size. Over the years, consumers stopped looking at calories and selected their meals for value (portion size) and taste. A classic example, McDonald’s Big Mac, has 550 calories, almost half of which come from fat. Add a milk shake and large fries, 580 and 500 calories respectively, and you’ve consumed almost an entire day’s calories with only one quick meal!
At the very least, fast food chains have been slowly coming to the conclusion that Americans need more varied and healthful menu choices. Most chains have responded with a variety of salads, vegetarian dishes, and smaller, more healthful portions at value prices. Other restaurants have made changes in how food is prepared. One example has been ending the use of unhealthy trans fats.
Another outcome of the fast food explosion is that our more economically challenged citizens suffer greater health problems stemming from poor diets and obesity than those who can afford to buy and consume more varied and healthful meals. Poor people in urban areas eat more fast food because it is cheaper and more readily available.
What’s being done about all of this?
Lawmakers in Los Angeles opened a potential window of opportunity by passing a resolution last summer banning any new fast food restaurants. This one year moratorium prevents chains from opening any new outlets in South Los Angeles, which coincidentally has the highest number of fast food restaurants per capita in the area. Residents of South L.A. also have a rate of obesity that is higher than the rest of L.A. County by 30%.
With this one-year ban, legislators hope not only to reduce obesity but also encourage better and more healthful food choices in the community. They hope that new, more health-conscious restaurants and groceries will open instead of additional fast food outlets.
The Eating Well website interviewed several health and nutrition experts whose opinions varied on whether the Los Angeles ban would have any beneficial effects on the community. All agree that change is needed but opinions differ on how to accomplish this change over time.
In New York City, the courts just today blocked a new municipal law that would ban overly large sugary drinks–those larger than 32 ounces. Mayor Bloomberg suggested imposing the ban citywide last year as just one method of helping to control the amount of calories consumed each day by city residents.
In the last few years, Bloomberg stood firmly behind new laws requiring New York City restaurants and other food establishments to openly post the calorie content of meals and individual food items. The laws apply to chains operating in more than 15 locations in the city.
Will counting calories help?
Health officials say that, unfortunately, customers rarely see calorie information before deciding what to order. New regulations would require the calorie counts to be posted as prominently as the price of each menu item. For many fast food outlets, that means the information would be added to the big menu boards on the walls that list food items and prices.
Even the U.S. government is trying to get into the calorie-counting business. The FDA is proposing new federal regulations that would require larger chain restaurants, those with 20 or more locations, to include calorie counts on their menus. Calorie counts would also be required on menu boards that are posted for public view. The Food and Drug Administration is soliciting comments from the public for these proposals on its website.
What more can be done?
As a nation, the United States can’t afford to lose the war on obesity. The potential costs in loss of productivity and the accompanying medical expenses are tremendous. A secondary issue is that, the larger and more sedentary our population becomes, the less capable we appear to be.
Lean and mean has always meant ready, willing, and able to tackle any task, no matter how difficult. We as Americans built this nation with sweat and hard labor. A little more sweat and a bit more physical labor could do us all a world of good.