Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fast Food Nation

The Los Angeles Times published the above article on Monday about a new law that’s making its way through the California legislature. The proposed law would require chain restaurants operating 15 or more stores to blatantly label the nutritional information of their products, including calorie content, on each of their menus. What do I think?

Bring it on! Amen!

This law touches on a sensitive subject for Americans: does anyone have the right to make you go on a diet or lose weight? The obvious answer is no; you absolutely have the freedom to choose what you eat, but this law doesn’t get in the way of that. What it does is simply give you more information about the calories you consume in the hopes you’ll make better food choices. Hey California, the legislature is giving you the benefit of the doubt here. They’re assuming that the reason 3 out 5 of us is overweight or obese is because we’re ill informed and if we just knew what was in the food we’d eat better.

I enthusiastically support this law, and it’s not just because I’m an athlete in the middle of a nation that spearheads gluttony in all forms. I don’t silently wish everyone was a fitness nut like me, but being a competitive athlete does change your perspective on these things and that has made one thing abundantly clear: we need these laws.

Looking around, it’s obvious that many of us cannot handle eating healthily on our own. Instead, we go overboard, consuming way too much of this wrong foods. This is the direct result of companies intentionally bombarding us with fattening foods combined with us not thinking about what we eat. We don’t think critically or weigh the pros and cons of our food options-- it’s a simple “I want it, so that’s what I’ll eat.” This is why we’re perpetually overweight and why we feel so weighed down by the nutritional consciousness required in dieting. Now I’m not saying this country is a nation of whiners, but if you’re used to just reacting to food emotionally, it can be very overbearing to suddenly have to see food as numbers and nutrients.

I went to a Dodgers game last night and this oblivious attitude towards calories was everywhere. It was commonplace for everyone to have their own personal serving of what was on the menu. People bought themselves a whole serving of nachos, a whole serving of garlic fries, or their own bag of Cracker Jacks. I saw several 200-300 lb. people at this game stuffed into their seats carrying trays of 22 oz. beers and lemonade, 2-3 Dodger dogs and huge plates of nachos. What’s the nutritional content for that meal? Well, according to New Yorker Magazine and the beer and lemonade total 550 calories, two hot dogs are 640 calories, and the nachos with cheese are 1,500 calories. The grand total is 2,690 calories. That’s more than what an average adult should be eating in one day and we’re not even counting snacks like Cracker Jacks or peanuts.

Splitting portions didn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind either, nor did the concept of maybe not eating ballpark food. You have options-- the Dodgers generously allow fans to bring their own food. Is the cuisine really that good or are you eating it just because you’re at a ballgame? I bet the latter, because the food I saw didn’t exactly look appetizing. This lack of thought in choosing what to eat is precisely what I mentioned earlier. Why don’t we ask ourselves how good does it really taste? Is it worth the calories?

Also, if you want a study in childhood obesity go to a baseball game. Parents were buying their obviously overfed children their own iced lemonade, plus a whole plate of nachos. And it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that these kids couldn’t make it up the stairs much better than their parents.

I think parents sometimes make poor food choices out of unfounded conventional wisdom. If you saw Super Size Me, you know that McDonalds and fast food in general wreaks havoc on your body. It’s not any less harmful if kids eat it, even though they might not gain weight as quickly as adults.

I went to an amusement park this summer where it seemed like every child survived on a diet of regular cola, Sno-Cones, cotton candy and French fries. I saw one mother tell her kids they should buy regular soda because the aspartame in the diet drinks wasn’t good for them. I’m sorry, but most nutritionists would probably say the amount of sugar and carbohydrates in regular cola is far worse than a little aspartame.

Let’s not forget that children learn what’s acceptable to eat from their parents. If we’re going to eat junk ourselves and feed it to our kids too, why are we so baffled by childhood obesity? How can we expect their waistlines to be any better than ours?

There’s a term is psychology called cognitive dissonance to describe what happens when we’re faced with the reality that what we think about ourselves doesn’t match with our actual behavior. Imagine if you thought of yourself as the furthest thing from racist and then someone somehow proved to you that you held some racist beliefs. This experience makes us uncomfortable, so we often try to change either our behavior or our beliefs in order to not experience this “dissonance. “

This proposed law pulls from the cognitive dissonance theory. Part of our problem is that most of us severely underestimate the calorie content of our food. This has been clearly demonstrated by several peer review studies, many of which are highlighted in this article. We don’t think of ourselves as terrible eaters and so we continue along in our blissful ignorance because nothing has proven us wrong yet. Slapping nutrition facts on fast foods would provide us proof that the food is not healthy, so according to the theory we’ll either accept this about ourselves or change our caloric intake to match our self-view.

Will injecting some cold reality ruin the eating experience? Absolutely not! I’ve actually found a sense of empowerment in having a leg up on companies who profit from our carb and sugar cravings. I find that being in the know is much better than trying to enjoy wearing blinders.

On the other hand, I’ve come across a few people who feel the opposite way. These people, who’d likely oppose this law, see it as forcing them to go on a diet and seem to want to protect their “right” to eat badly. Apparently, this is a freedom of choice issue; that they have the right to not make healthy eating a priority and no person or law should get in the way.

Well, what about my right to make informed decisions about what I eat? I could say those rights are being infringed on because restaurants do not currently have to provide calorie or nutritional information. Many of them take full advantage by scrimping on raw ingredients and injecting fattening additives such as lard, butter, sugar and heavy cream to keep the food sell-able while cutting costs. Imagine if you were made to buy a car but were not given information like miles per gallon, or if you had to rent an apartment without first taking a tour. If we think about it, I’m sure there’s a way that we’re all having our rights assaulted.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a person’s right to trans fat. Isn’t this a ridiculous thing to get up in arms about? I understand the argument about priorities, but what’s the big deal here? This law would help millions of Californians make better choices and after all, it’s just information—not forced dieting. There is no good reason that on personal grounds any of us should contest policies that improve public health. Perhaps we should be more concerned with solving this country’s obesity problem than advancing our personal agenda. California, isn’t it about time we started thinking beyond ourselves?


scott said...

im sure caloric content is the main reason for obesity in america, but i also think with less and less children and adults physically active, due to thousands of cable channels as well as the latest videogame, the high definition movie craze, overworked weeks....all contribute to the fact that people just dont get up and move around like they used to.

Ric Storms said...

I think this law has good intentions, but until legislators stop confusing the symptom with the disease, there will be no real progress in terms of people eating healthier. Lets look at a parallel case, smoking. This may be anecdotal, but I have never heard anyone quit smoking due to the warning labels on the front of the box. Let me reiterate this because I think its an important point, people won't stop doing something even when told point blank that they are putting themselves and those around them at risk to cancer and possible death. Those are very tangible and real consequences that don't require much abstractions. Yet, while this may discourage others from beginning the activity, it does not stop those already so engaged. So if the threat of death will not stop someone from a behavior, what will telling someone they are ingesting 9 grams of transfats do? Nutritional information is a much more abstract concept than, the direct correlation between smoking and cancer. Information in the hands of the under-educated or apathetic is useless. Money would be better spent on education that just putting useless information out there. Its not just fast food that causes obesity, food in grocery stores is full of relevant nutritional facts, yet I would bet that less than 10% of people ever consult them.