We went to McAlister’s Deli for lunch last Saturday. As my daughter and I peered at the four columns of menu items above the counter, she noticed one column entitled “Vegetarian”. “Daddy, one-fourth of the meals are vegetarian”, she said. (She is learning fractions in her 5th grade class.)
At McDonald’s, we can peer at the menu above the counter until we develop a neck sprain and still not find a low fat healthy meal. One quarter pound cheeseburger, large fries and a soda would offer us half the daily requirement of calories and nearly a hundred percent of fat. To stay within the daily dietary guidelines for fat, the remaining meals would have to be raw vegetables and salad without dressing.
Tommy Thompson, our secretary of health and human services, wants to change the menu at McDonald’s as well as other restaurants. “It is important to pressure the food industry, the fast food industry, the soft drink society … getting them to offer healthier foods and put more things on the menu dealing with fruits and vegetables” he said.
Why does Tommy Thompson want to change the menu at fast food restaurants?
He wants to do this for many reasons. Americans eat one of every five meals away from home and forty percent of these meals are at fast food restaurants. Undeniably, fast food is fueling the obesity epidemic, which in turn is attributing to a rampant increase in diseases such as diabetes. Ultimately, the explosion of the bulge and diseases is sky rocketing the cost of healthcare.
A Health Affair’s report estimated that obesity (thirty pounds over a healthy weight) and being over weight (ten to thirty pounds over a healthy weight) among Americans is costing $93 billion dollars annually in medical expenses –more than the cost of smoking- with half of it being paid from Tommy Thompson’s government budget programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Some sixty-five percent of Americans are obese or overweight.
The human suffering – the word suffering is not an exaggeration – both physical and psychological, from being overweight is enormous. Annually, an estimated 300,000 deaths are attributed to excessive weight, more than from AIDS, lung, breast and colon cancer combined. The psychological impact is reflected in a magazine survey where two-thirds of the women and over half of the men were dissatisfied with their weight.
Better health and lower cost are not the only reasons to push toward healthier menus. There is a fresh batch of law suits coming to the courts, all accusing the fast food chains of misleading or not informing the public on the “hazards” of fast food, which can lead to health problems. It is a déjà vu of the smoking legal battles. The lawyers, few clients, and the government get some compensation while the entire food industry sector becomes paranoid.
If the general public’s food choices and the fast food industry do not change, we face dire consequences. So what is the solution?
Obesity and being overweight are caused by personal decisions (what we choose to eat) and a societal/cultural decision (what we are offered to eat). What policy makers and Tommy Thompson are demanding is that government leaders and corporate executives of restaurant chains take responsibility to create a healthy diet culture. This is exactly what McAlister’s and Subway are doing – offering heart healthy menus. Other restaurants like The American Café put a red swivel next to “meatless items”. Grudgingly, McDonald’s has added a new salad menu.
Advocates are pushing for greater changes. They want the nutritional content of meals to be printed next to the price or on the package – the McDonald’s in England is already planning to do this. Maybe restaurants can put a red heart next to low-fat heart healthy meals, a half-black half-red heart next to a hamburger and a completely black heart next to the artery-clogging double whopper. Such graphic information may dissuade some people from eating the fattening meal at every visit.
We must examine our diets beyond the fast food industry. A report by the General Accounting Office cites that three-fourths of the school lunches exceed the thirty percent fat requirement suggested by the Agriculture Department. When my daughter’s school lunch menu counts one-eighth of a cup of salsa as a “serving of vegetable”, I realize we have a long way to go to change our unhealthy culture of eating.