Who, or What, is to Blame for Obesity in America?
As of 2015, the number of obese people in the world surpassed the number of malnourished people. This issue has been expanding outside of America and it’s one that affects one third of children and adolescents ages six to nineteen. Diseases such as diabetes, dyslipidemia, heart disease, hypertension, and many others go directly hand in hand with obesity and affect millions of Americans every year. Fast food restaurants take a lot of the blame for the rise in obesity in the last fifty years in the United States, but is it really their fault? Eating fast food has been tied to many diseases including obesity and this is a difficult train to turn around because nowadays, traditional family dinners are being replaced by fast food. The average American eats out, instead, of making a home-cooked meal, five times per week. At McDonald’s, the Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal with a medium Coke contains over 1,200 mg of sodium which is more than half of the daily salt intake that’s recommended by dietary guidelines. The real question that America is struggling to answer is whether obesity is an outbreak of terrifying proportions. If you look at a picture of a large crowd from forty or fifty years ago, you’ll realize that there are almost no obese people in the photo. Researchers are struggling to answer one question, what changed?
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Should people who are obese blame themselves for their weight problems? Many Americans believe in personal responsibility, in fact, much of our nation’s obesity epidemic comes down to personal responsibility because if people ate less and exercised more, as a nation we would be much healthier. Even though Americans live in a highly individualistic culture, they have the unnatural talent to automatically blame others first, instead, of themselves. New studies suggest that our health falls to be a victim to this bias because 94% of Americans agree that people are responsible for their own weight issues. Many Americans underestimate how large this obesity epidemic is. “If you don’t see the role of the junk food industry in causing the problem and in continuing to maintain the problem, you’ve missed a big part of the diagnosis,” says Daynard, who is leading a soda industry lawsuit. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot has a few theories of what might have been the cause in the rise of obesity such as people are eating way more than they used to, there’s been a huge decline in the amount of exercise Americans do, and the lack of manual labor in the workforce also plays a large part. Although the idea of creating public policies to help reduce obesity and encourage healthy eating sounds quite attractive, it may not be as effective as policymakers would like.
It’s not the point to blame the entire fast food industry because personal responsibility is a huge factor in deciphering what is to blame for obesity in America. Since the boom of the fast food industry came at a time of major malnutrition in the United States, huge companies are aggressively trying to sell their food to people who don’t necessarily need it. People can’t be forced to make the right decision, but consumers take much of the responsibility for their weight and the fact that every two out of three Americans are either obese or overweight. Food companies should have offered healthier options long ago. For many people, the party that is responsible is the obese people themselves. In the United States, Americans are known for being an individualistic society, so it’s hard to believe that they would put this responsibility on themselves instead of blaming others.
This idea follows the false perception that obesity is strictly a self-inflicted disease when, in fact, obesity is a multifactorial disease, which means, it’s caused by many things. Many metabolic, genetic, and psychological factors cause obesity which contributes to more weight gain and a higher resistance to weight loss. Certain prescription and non-prescription medications can also slow a person’s metabolism which can then stimulate hunger and contribute to overeating habits. People today are no longer referring only to the public for failing to move their appetite from sugar. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than one in three adults are currently obese.
American waistlines keep expanding despite an abundance of evidence that shows what an unhealthy lifestyle that is. Unfortunately, today, people still don’t know what the true consequences of eating fast food are. Monbiot has turned to numbers in nutrition because what Americans eat has massively changed. “We buy half as many eggs in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereal and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps,” says Monbiot.
Lack of Science
One reason why food companies didn’t offer healthier options before was because the science behind it wasn’t there. For years the understanding of the way food was made was greater than the understanding of nutrition, so healthy things like whole grains were left in the dust and things such as fatty acids were embraced. Dr. George Blackburn of Harvard’s Medical School says, “we didn’t even put nutrition in the medical curriculum except in the last 30 or 40 years.” Scientists are just now feeling a responsibility to be cautious of people’s healthy eating habits. Even when big companies succeed, they are still in danger to scientific surprises that can make or break a business.
When these companies finally determined that saturated fat was one of the enemies, they had to reformulate their products. The lack of science can’t completely explain the growing portions of food, from the size of a medium soda at the movies to McDonald’s supersized burgers, and everything in between. Some of the fast food chains have launched family sized portions of some of their food options. This brings up a good question, did Americans eating habits change food companies, or did its new products change Americans? Many Americans are angered by the fact that the amount of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients in our food have skyrocketed since the 1960s and 70s.
By 1962, the food industry had recognized that high sugar intake could also increase cholesterol levels. Around this same time, the Sugar Research Foundation paid one researcher $6,500 (which is about $50,000 today) to write a review article that downplayed the connection between heart disease and sugar. How is the fast food industry supposed to react when science is practically threatening its businesses? In the industry of sugar, the companies within would much rather try and confuse the public with its “healthy” products. The Sugar Association had pointed out that sugar doesn’t have a direct connection or role in heart disease.
Researches have acknowledged that many companies are in difficult decisions because they need to sell food that people will buy and public health isn’t necessarily always on their radar. In the past, tobacco companies have been accused of tampering with nicotine and some say that fast food restaurants are doing the same. As of today, there has been no company that has admitted to manipulating the ingredients in the food that they sell. Researchers from the University of Illinois has sought out to better understand how the American public places blame when it comes to obesity. Despite the opportunity to blame the government, restaurants, food manufacturers, farmers, parents, etc, people overwhelmingly choose individuals.
The fact that researchers need to research this is quite astounding because it suggests several things about how the country views its own obesity problems. Research that’s funded by the industry itself can greatly advance human health and if the funding of the research is honest in communicating its findings to the public, regardless of whether the products come out looking bad or good. A survey was given out by Clear Voice Research whose panelists are quite representative of the U.S. population in terms of socioeconomic characteristics, region, and gender. The main question on this survey was, “Who is primarily to blame for the rise in obesity?” Results show that 80% of people believed individuals are either primarily, or somewhat responsible for the rise in obesity and parents are the second people to blame coming in at 59%. Ellison claimed that the findings from doing this survey was very unexpected.
In the article Obesity and Fast Food by Ananya Mandal, fast food consumption costs were nearly $164.8 billion in 2010 and that was a 3% rise from 2009. Studies have shown that people eat more when presented with a variety of food or flavors. For example, you are less likely to eat a plain baked potato than you are to eat one that’s loaded with butter, sour cream, cheese, and bacon. This is thought to be true especially with the way cereal has more complex flavors and varieties, this gets consumers to eat more of their product. Nowadays, dinner entrees served at restaurants are typically paired with two and up to four sides.
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Today, the world is a place where fast food restaurants are supersized, GMO’s and artificial substitutes are common in daily diets, and where healthy foods come with a big price tag. Price is also an important variable in determining the cause for obesity. In a world full of inconsistent grocery prices, fast food restaurants have managed to keep their low prices with great consistency. For most Americans, at this point, it’s an easy choice between cheap and convenient fast food or expensive and time-consuming meal preparation. This choice is clearly disastrous as seen from the rising obesity rate.
Everywhere, the food people are tempted to eat is staring right back, waiting to be purchased by those who fall for its advertising. Fast food chains are putting $36 billion every year into directing consumer’s decisions to favor eating out instead of staying in. Many of these efforts are going towards making, and marketing, healthier menu items. “Obesity is in the news every day, so it would be hard to say that people are unaware of the policy initiatives in place to reduce U.S. obesity rates,” said co-researcher Brenna Ellison. Americans are generally seen as people who can endure pain without showing their feelings and they always believe that they know best and don’t like to be told what to do, let alone what to eat.
Companies try everything they can to even persuade what kids want to eat in every aspect from child-friendly marketing of sugary cereals to ads with funny cartoon characters. Kids are only concerned with what gets their attention, even if it is a cheap plastic toy inside of a ready box with a golden M. According to Sarah Muntel in the article Fast Food – Is it the Enemy? she exclaims, “Coincidentally, that 33.8% of the U.S. population is affected by obesity and 19% of children and adolescents are also affected.” This is because most fast foods out there are being targeted towards children. Some of these claims are stereotypes and not every food company is living up to them.
General Mills is the nation’s number two cereal maker and now makes all its cereals from whole-grain flour and Pepsi devotes two thirds of its revenue to finding healthier ingredients for its products.
Fast Food and its Convenience
The term fast food is defined as “a type of mass-produced food designed for commercial resale and with a strong priority placed on ‘speed of service.’” To make speed the priority, fast food chains made sure it wasn’t an inconvenience to the customers that were short on time. The quickest form of “fast food” is pre-cooked meals that are kept ready prior to a customer arriving to ensure that waiting time is reduced to just seconds. Although there are many foods that can be cooked fast, the term “fast food” was coined as a commercial term limited to food that is sold in a store or restaurant to be taken out or taken away. Food accessibility is a huge component in the industry’s role in obesity.
The only inconvenience in getting fast food is the short wait you must go through which is no comparison to the tedious and time-consuming process of grocery shopping and then preparing a meal. In the United States, drive-through restaurants became quite popular in the 1950s. Many franchises of fast food chains have standardized food that is shipped to each restaurant from a central location. For the sake of convenience, people in the U.S. consciously and consistently eat food they know is bad, just to save time. Americans continue to consume empty calories and other food that doesn’t count as “nourishing.” Past research has shown that many of the food policies that are already in place and that are designed to improve food choices, such as requiring calorie information on restaurant menus and taking sugar-sweetened drinks don’t always produce the best results. This leads to another question, why aren’t consumers responding to increased calorie information on menus?
It’s no question that obesity and overweight rates in the U.S. are much higher than they were twenty, or even thirty years ago, so it’s not surprising that health officials are actively searching for solutions. Fast food is quite often construed as the main force behind America’s obesity problem because the amount of sugar has obviously gone up and whole foods have decreased. Companies like Pizza Hut and Starbucks spend billions keeping their products on our minds and in our mouths whether its coupons in the mail, television commercials, or hearing about the chain from a friend or family member. Many experts have concluded that the solution for this problem is simple. Everyone is a part of this ever-growing problem and it is going to take everyone to step off the obesity bandwagon and make a difference.
Everyone would all love to blame somebody other than themselves, but the truth of the matter is that it’s each person’s own responsibility, whether they choose to eat the unhealthy food or not. 90% of policymakers are blaming the obese for not having the personal motivation to do something about their weight problem. Policymakers need to be realistic about the solutions they are proposing and trying to implement because if people don’t buy into them then they need to be reevaluated and that takes more time. It is important to remember that obesity isn’t always a self-inflicted condition and that it’s a condition with many factors that are quite complex, and it is a valid medical condition which deserves a valid medical analysis. If the food industry is the way it is today, obesity will not be able to be eliminated, or even fought, instead it will continue to thrive exponentially as it has been for the last sixty years. Sugar tastes great and everyone can agree on that, but companies need to remember that if they can’t survive by honestly selling their products, they might want to investigate a different industry.
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