Obesity is becoming an epidemic in America – more than 30% of childhood diabetes cases are Type 2, a condition typically caused by poor diet (Zinczenko, 2002). The American fast food culture contributes to this level of obesity, as the combination of affordability, taste and convenience makes it easier for a family of any income level to feed themselves on fast food – however, it then becomes the responsibility of the individual to regulate their diet. Given the obesity statistics in American as they exist today, this is clearly not an option for many. What’s more, fast food companies are not providing people with the tools they need to combat this epidemic. As a result, government regulation of fast food companies in order to increase nutrition and health awareness must take place.
Childhood obesity currently exists as a substantial problem in the United States and other
countries, due to a combination of factors stemming from a lack of physical activity and
insufficient nutrition, among others (Brockman et al., 2010). These habits of a sedentary lifestyle
most often translate into inactivity as an adult as well, increasing the risk of mortality and
disease (Gustafson and Rhodes, 2006). Obesity and cardiovascular disease is often linked to
inactivity in children, causing significant health problems for youth around the world (Cleveland
and Venn, 2010). More successful interventions promoting physical activity in youth must be
found and implemented if youth health is to be improved. These are just some of the factors
relating to childhood obesity that are found in an individual's macrosystem; cultural and social
attributes that surround children, as well as laws and customs, contribute heavily to childhood
(A.D.A.M., 2008, http://home.messiah.edu/~da1199/obesity-and-health.jpg).
Social norms and cultural attributes in various nations and subcultures also contribute to
childhood obesity; in minority and low-income areas, where healthy food is too expensive and
inaccessible, and larger body images are much more tolerated, there are much higher instances of
childhood obesity (Trost et al., 2003). There is substantial socialization that occurs in low-
income areas, which are typically inhabited by mostly African-Americans and Latinos, that
create implicit endorsement and acceptance of obesity through pervasive fast food cultures and
media depictions of acceptable role models who are plus-sized or obese. While these factors are
in no way directed solely at minorities, the level to which it occurs is disproportionate. Possible
explanations include the de-emphasizing of physical activity in school, easy access to fast food,
and affordability of low-income families to purchase (comparatively) more expensive, healthy
food (Eisenmann et al., 2008).
Current plans for government regulation include mandates on food quality, portion control, and healthier options for fast food restaurants, in a $200 million budget plan (Balko, 2004). Soda in vending machines would be banned, as well as potato chips and other fatty snacks, in schools around the country. A fat tax on high-calorie foods has also been proposed as well, making fast food companies pay more for the privilege of serving their food to the average American. That would presumably drive prices up and convince many Americans to seek other alternatives (Balko, 2004).
As it stands today, many people are fed on fast food multiple times a day (Zinczenko, 2002). These companies provide quickly made, good-tasting food that is affordable to eat, many popular establishments allowing you to feed yourself for a dollar. Due to corn subsidies making sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup cheap, more and more people are turning to fast food as the viable way to feed a low-income family. The increasingly fast pace of American lifestyles also makes taking the time to cook healthier meals much less available, making even active and affluent individuals turn to fast food in order to find the convenient way to feed themselves.
While health and fitness is something that most Americans are tangentially aware of, many of them are not implementing proper diet and exercise methods. This stems from a number of factors, not the least of which is the prevalence of fast food restaurants in an urban setting. The visibility of these restaurants makes it far easier to find a hamburger than fruits or vegetables (Zinczenko, 2002). There is also the American cultural tie to hamburgers, hot dogs, and other food associated with holidays, as well as the relative affluence of American citizens, that makes it possible for these fatty foods to become the affordable choice in many people’s minds. In fact, it has now become somewhat more expensive to buy healthy, organic food. For a fiscally-minded American citizen, it is much cheaper to feed yourself and your family at the drive-thru than to make a salad from scratch (Zinczenko, 2002).
There are those who say that government regulation of fast food is unnecessary and a direct infringement of personal liberty, especially in regards to what is put in our bodies. Many claim that the food we eat is the one thing above all that must not be regulated or socialized (Balko, 2004). The very idea of controlling our food options and preventing private businesses from selling their products due to an absence of willpower and restraint on the part of the consumer.
One thing that must be considered is the fact that American citizens do not exactly know the nutrition information of the fast food they are eating. As a result, they are not properly educated on what their food provides in terms of calories or sodium. Government regulation of fast food companies could include steps such as the implementation of packaging complete with nutrition information. There is some nutrition information provided currently, but it is mostly inaccurate fudging, using deceptive language to omit ingredients and shrink serving sizes to make a meal seem more nutritious than it is (Zinczenko, 2002). This will allow the consumer to see what they are eating and its nutritional value (or lack thereof). Greater awareness of what people are putting into their bodies can push them toward a healthier lifestyle, and as fast food companies -are not doing it themselves, the government may have to make them do it.
A unique way to look at the intervention of government in the diets of the American people is an investment in the future and health of its citizens. In order to have a functioning economy, military, or government, its citizens must be in appropriate physical health, so they can operate at optimum condition. With government regulation of fast food, individuals can be made more aware of better lifestyle choices, become more active, and therefore possess higher levels of energy and greater productivity. This way, they can apply that energy to the continuation and prosperity of the country at large.
Some can argue that the intervention of government is unnecessary, as fast food companies are already starting to carry healthier options, such as apple slices and salads. However, their primary fast food items are still being prominently displayed, and there is a decided lack of advertisement regarding their healthier options, especially when compared to the main items like cheeseburgers. The insertion of these stopgap measures to introduce health to their customers seems like a half-hearted appeasement to those calling for healthier foods. Drastic steps must be taken if, despite these healthier options, American citizens are not taking them and continuing their path to obesity.
The number of lawsuits levied against fast food companies by individuals showcases a certain lack of responsibility in both parties – both at the plaintiff for not exercising appropriate common sense and portion control in their diet, and the fast food company for not offering the proper information needed for the consumer to educate themselves. With this in mind, government is the one option left to step in and work to prevent these situations from occurring in the first place. Government mandates on fast food nutrition information and food quality will help to diminish accountability in these lawsuits, as fast food companies are still following these regulations. This helps to protect them from these litigious customers, and so the fast food industry should welcome this intervention.
In conclusion, public health is a governmental concern – the needs of its people must be considered, and if industry and the individual are not willing to take the appropriate steps to stave off obesity and poor health habits, the government is the only entity left that can take these measures. In the event fast food companies were to take better responsibility of their customer base, or personal responsibility for one’s own health were better cared for, then these steps would be unnecessary. Due to the prevalence of obesity in this country, however, and the social and economic factors that prevent viable alternatives from being as affordable and readily available, the intervention of government into the fast food industry must be allowed.
Balko, R. The terror of fat. National Post. 2004.
Brockman, R., Jago, R., & Fox, K. The contribution of active play to the physical activity of primary school children. Preventive Medicine, 51, 144-147. 2010.
Cleveland, V., & Venn, A. Encouraging Physical Activity and Discouraging Sedentary Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47, 221-222. 2010.
Eisenmann, J.C., Gentile, D.A., Welk, G.J., Callahan, R., et al. SWITCH: rationale,
design, and implementation of a community, school, and family-based intervention to
modify behaviors related to childhood obesity. BMC Public Health 8: 223. 2008.
Gustafson, S., & Rhodes, R. Parental Correlates of Physical Activity in Children and Early Adolescents. Sports Medicine, 36(1), 79-97. 2006.
Trost, S., Sallis, J., Pate, R., Freedson, P., Taylor, W., & Dowda, M. Evaluating a Model
of Parental Influence on Youth Physical Activity. American Journal of Preventive
Medicine, 25(4), 277-282. 2003.
Zinczenko, D. Don't blame the eater. New York Times, Nov. 23. 2002.