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Should Fast Food Restaurants be Responsible for Obesity?



Introduction

Obesity refers to a health condition where an individual accumulates excess body fat leading to health complications. Ideally, one is considered to be obese if his or her weight goes beyond his/her ideal body weight by 20-30%. A standard measure of obesity is the Body Mass Index (BMI). When an individual has a normal weight, his/her BMI ranges between 18 and 25. When BMI rises above 25 to 30, a person is considered to be overweight and, when it goes above 30, a person becomes obese. There are several illnesses that are associated with obesity, and they include: type two diabetes, some forms of cancer, stroke, hypertension, and heart diseases (Currie 16).

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity has almost doubled for the last three centuries. According to a study by WHO in 2008, there were more than 1.4 billion people, 20 years and above, who were overweight. Over 200 million men and about 300 million women were obese. The organization also revealed that more than 40 million children aged below five were overweight in 2011. From a distribution perspective, about 65% of people in the world live in places where obesity and overweight claim more lives than underweight health conditions (“Fast Food Facts” 14).

Of great concern is childhood obesity, which proves to be a serious risk to both the current and future generations. When a child becomes obese, he/she risks developing an obesity-related illness in his/her adulthood. In the US, for instance, about a third of the adults are obese, while two-thirds are overweight. In the case of children, 16% of them are feared to become obese, while 30% are overweight. This indicates that the higher level of obesity in children may lead to an even greater proportion of adults suffering from obesity in the future, which is a serious threat.

The rise in obesity incidences has also led to economic problems. In the European Union (EU), for example, the treatment of illness associated with obesity accounts for nearly 70% of the total cost incurred in health care services. In 2003, the Health Affair journal of the US found out that the obesity health bill was estimated at around USD 100 billion annually. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, expenditure on obesity-related diseases had risen to USD 147 billion by 2009.

Causes of Obesity

Among the main causes of obesity is the genetic composition of an individual. Health studies have shown that genes strongly influence one’s weight. It especially affects the fat storage capacity of a body. Overweight may also arise from hormone problems such as underactive thyroid, polycystic ovarian syndrome as well as Cushing’s syndrome. Some medicine may, such as corticosteroids, seizure, and antidepressant medicines, also result in weight gain. Such medicine may lower the rate at which calories are burnt in the body (Simon 37).

Emotional factors such as anger and stress are also associated with obesity due to excessive eating by emotional people. Such overeating results in obesity. When a person stops smoking, there is a tendency of gaining weight as well since such people find food tasting better than before. Similarly, overweight and obesity have a tendency of increasing as people age up. This is due to the loss of muscles, which slows the rate at which the body burns calories. It is also common among women to accumulate fat as a result of pregnancies (Simon 38).

Fat accumulation is central to these problems. Apart from the traditional causes mentioned above, since the mid-1970s, an increase in weight and other related illnesses depends on people’s eating habits. Over this period, the supply of fast food has been on the rise due to the increased number of fast-food restaurants in the world. Though correlation is not causality, studies conducted have indicated a causal effect relationship between fast food and obesity despite there being a direct medical inference.

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Fast Food Restaurants and Obesity

Over time, some people’s lifestyles and orientations have changed others to their detriment. There are various reasons that have led to an increase in the usage of fast food. This includes an increased supply of such food through the increase in the distribution and penetration of fast-food restaurants in the world. Such accessibility convenience has been a major inducement. Similarly, people all over the world have become busier and busier. Fast food offers a solution by being something that can be eaten within a short time between activities in people’s daily schedule. This has made fast food become a regular option.

Also, the cost of living in most places in the world has been on the rise. Consumers have become price sensitive and rational, and cheap things always appeal to them. This has been among the reasons why fast food restaurants have recorded rising profits due to the increasing demand: they owe their success to the consumer rationale. Fast foods are considered to be extremely cheap when compared to other products offered in other restaurants.

It has also been observed that many people choose fast food based on their taste. This mainly results from their packaging. They are normally packed with sugar and fats, which make them taste good. Good taste is among the reasons why children demand them and are still the reason why it causes obesity: high-fat content.

Over time, people have also adopted a culture of buying ready foods as opposed to traditional cooking. Others cannot cook and, for that reason, ready food is the best option for them. The increased demand for fast food has led to an increase in related restaurants, leading to a serious health threat to mankind.

Relationship between Fast Food and Obesity

In the general public debate, assertions have been made that the presence of fast food has led to an increase in obesity. This has attracted policymakers’ attention and various studies have also been conducted to establish any correlation between fast food and obesity. Researchers have taken different perspectives, such as media impact, the influence of a family, and proximity to concentrated areas with a potential demand such as schools, as a means of establishing the relationship between fast food and obesity.

Studies on the increased prevalence of obesity among children indicate that a modern family setup has a major contribution to obesity. To start with, children eating behavior is developed from their home experiences. With increased employment of women, who traditionally would take care of children at home, there is little time left to prepare meals for children. To optimize the opportunity, fast food restaurants have developed packages specifically targeting children. However, kid-friendly meals usually fall short of nutrition value. Research in Houston in 2009 indicated that only around 3% of the kids’ meals in various fast food restaurants meet the standard threshold as established by the National School Lunch Program (Collins & Tracy 41).

Research on children eating behavior conducted in Australia indicated that fast food that is bought and taken by kids to home is more associated with obesity than it is the case for fast food taken in restaurants. The explanation to this is that children who take their fast food at home risk overeating. This is especially related to children who eat while watching different TV programs. This is also coupled with the lack of choices to get a better meal when they take fast food home.

Besides, the researchers have focused on media in establishing the relationship between fast food and obesity. Media has been widely used by a company to create familiarity with their product to the target market so as to induce demand. This has a significant influence on consumers’ choice of products. The greatest victims of the advertisements made by fast-food restaurant food companies are children. These restaurants pack meals for kids in bright and attractive packages, which commonly come together with a toy. Such brands have won recognition among kids and hence increased consumption. To prove this, Castaneda, Arredondo, Slymen, Elder, and Dozier conducted research that involved kids.

The research itself was in the form of a game where the kids were supposed to match logos of restaurants and food offered there. The restaurants involved both fast-food restaurants and others. They observed that the kids whose BMI was high had a better understanding of the meals that are provided in fast food restaurants. Kids who were able to match only a few meals to the fast-food restaurants had a low BMI. From this study, they concluded that the marketing techniques used by these restaurants have captured the attention of kids. As such, kids influence the purchasing behavior of parents in buying fast foods. As a result, these restaurants have succeeded in ensuring continued patronage by both parents and children. A similar effect is also possible among the adults who are also likely to react positively towards well-marketed products.

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Apart from the overt advertisements that work perfectly in favor of fast-food restaurants, children have also been targeted by various television commercials. Research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research reported a positive impact of banning television adverts during children’s television programs with regard to overweight and obesity. They found out that a ban on these adverts would result in a reduction of overweight by 18% and 14% for children aged 3-11 and 12-18 years respectively. Similar results would be achieved by increasing prices for the adverts and hence reducing the amount of advertisement, as it was noted in the study. They, however, note the difficulty associated with limiting the adverts and, therefore, recommend control of the number of advertisements that children are exposed to.

Other studies have chosen to assess how the proximity of fast food restaurants would relate to obesity. These assessments have specifically focused on how such restaurants are distributed with respect to homes and schools. Numerous observations have been made from this perspective. Carpenter and Davis (2009) conducted a study in California that used a geo-coordinated database from high and middle schools as provided in the department of education of California. They also got a list of restaurants that offered fast food in the region. This helped to estimate the distance between schools and fast food restaurants. Nearly a third of the students that took part in the study turned out to be overweight, while 12% of them were obese. The research observed that students who schooled in areas close to fast food restaurants were generally heavier compared to their counterparts schooling in areas far from a fast food restaurant.

A study by Howard, Fitzpatrick, and Fulfrost (2011) also assessed the proximity of restaurants from homes and schools by making use of working time rather than distance in length. Their near distance was in the form of 10 minutes walk. They also observed a positive relationship between overweight people and fast food restaurants’ proximity: the less the distance, the higher the chances of being obese. Apart from the proximity to the restaurant, this study also assessed the proximity of supermarkets where such fast foods were sold. However, with regard to supermarkets, there was no relationship. They concluded that this may be a result of there being many options for the consumers in the supermarkets and, hence, less demand for fast foods from such outlets.

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What Goes Wrong?

Fast food restaurants, like any other private institutions, have wealth maximization for the owners as their objective. This disregards the external effect in an environment where external regulations are not strict. As observed above, the excess accumulation of fat as a result of the consumption of fast food is a major cause of obesity. However, these restaurants will always employ strategies that would place them in the best position in the market. Their free operation has led to serious problems that relate to areas such as:

Marketing

As outlined in the marketing laws of various countries such as the European Union and the US, provided that the firms are able to meet the safety standards put, the firms are free to market their products or services as they find fit. There are, however, restrictions on how such marketing is conducted. These regulations have prompted large fast food restaurants to come up with their homemade codes of marketing to drive away the attention of the regulators and legislators to avoid restrictions. This is especially in regard to marketing practices that target children (Chou et al. 67).

This behavior of firms coming with their voluntary codes has received criticism from various health lobby groups. The argument is that such a self-instituted regulation has failed the test of time and that marketing of unhealthy foods, especially to kids, should be banned.

According to Neville Rigby Policy and Public Affairs Director of the International Obesity Task, marketing strategies by fast food restaurants are seasonal and are not developed with a long-term objective. These companies develop controversial marketing drives. When the public complains about such campaigns, the companies offer an apology and simply shift to their other campaign. The problem also extends to the regulations that these firms are exposed to. The fines charged for crimes committed by these firms are too little to deter them from engaging in potentially unlawful activities. For this reason, fast food restaurants risk fines than avoiding marketing (Andreyeva 103).

Labeling

Public sensitivity to health concerns increases their interest in the nutritional components of whatever they are consuming. With the realization of this, many fast food restaurants are responding positively to help customers identify healthier foods through nutrition labeling. This relates to an act of providing information regarding the composition of food in terms of energy value, carbohydrates, proteins, fibers, or even sodium. However, the provision of such information has not been made compulsory in both the UK and the EU. This can only be a requirement where the manufacturer makes claims about the nutritional components of a product (Libal 63).

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A food labeling requirement as it is in the UK at the moment is perceived to be ineffective. The weakness of the current regulations is that they do not provide a framework within which manufacturers can be able to provide the subjective composition of various elements. For instance, when a manufacturer should say that this food is ‘low in’ protein? Nutritional labeling, however, lacks in various food that is taken, especially in fast food restaurants. Where the labeling is present, it is sometimes written in complex language that is difficult to understand and interpret. At times, such labeling is made using very small printing that it becomes difficult to read. This reduces the sensitivity of consumers to the nutritional components of the food that they take.

There seems to be a coincidence of perceptions among the industry regulators and various health groups towards the establishment of nutritional labeling as a compulsory requirement to the producers. This should be also coupled with a simple system of nutritional labeling that will enable people to make a fast and clear judgment of what they choose to consume based on health considerations.

Various regulators and health campaigners have suggested compelling such things as indicating strong health warnings on packets of foods with high energy density. They also feel that labeling would be inadequate without linking consumption to calories. In this regard, labeling should indicate the exercise required to ensure that calories contained in a particular food product are burnt off.

Fast food restaurants have fought back insisting that fast food does not directly cause obesity, but rather obesity results from bad eating habits, a lack of adequate physical exercise, and overeating. They insist on the existence of very little difference between what they offer and what is offered by other restaurants. In this regard, they insist on unhealthy and healthy diets and not unhealthy and healthy foods. This has led to the suggestion of an on-pack nutritional signposting. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has come up with the ‘nutritional traffic light system’ that gives green, yellow, and red on-pack labels as a way of reflecting of low, medium, or high fat, salt, and sugar components of a product (Andreyeva 86). This is expected to influence the consumers’ purchasing behavior by informing them about the health value of a product before consuming and, probably, they would respond by consuming less of red-packaged products.

Fast Food Restaurants Should be Responsible for Obesity

Though generally not successful, various legal suits have been made to various fast food restaurants regarding their products and the effects they had on consumers. A case in point is a lawsuit by Caesar Barber in 2005. He claimed that he became obese after a decade of taking food from Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's. His lawsuit in Bronx Supreme Court was based on the fact that these companies claimed “100% beef” while it was all fat.

This raises an ethical concern on the part of the restaurants. Though they may argue that it is difficult to single out fast food as a cause of obesity for any particular case, research shows that fast food is responsible for an increased obesity nightmare and so are the producers. It is clear that trends in the distribution of obesity follow the introduction of fast-food chains. These restaurants should be held accountable for sound free will. Whereas parents may make a choice to control fast food consumption, children may not, and yet they have their own money. This puts excessive marketing targeting children into questions.

The demand for fast food has been on the rise due to the changes in lifestyles and culture. The fast-food industry has simply responded to the market demand paying little attention to the health implications of its products. Their products are highly saturated with sugar, fat, and cholesterol, which are significantly associated with obesity. As observed in places such as Italy and France where the distribution of fast-food chains is less dense, obesity cases have been few. This, therefore, requires the restaurants to be responsible enough to control what they supply into the market, observe the labeling, and marketing regulations as well as develop consumer sensitive codes of marketing where such practices are allowed.

Conclusion

There exist various causes that lead to overweight and obesity. Obesity has turned out to be a major health concern due to the various critical health conditions associated with it. Due to the change in lifestyle, obesity prevalence has almost doubled for the last three centuries. Researchers show a causal relationship between fast food and obesity. Whenever fast food restaurants are established, the obesity problem follows. This problem is common in all ages and takes a sizable share of a country’s budget allocation. As such, it has become a major concern to both the fast-food regulators and health lobbying groups. Fast food products are believed to be a major cause of obesity due to their nutritional components. Thus, there is a need for fast food restaurants to be responsible enough by making their products of standard nutrient levels, responsible marketing, and nutrient labeling. Strict laws to control such restaurants are necessary as a way of resolving the problem.

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