This opinion piece was written by Contributing Writer David Butler. The views expressed herein are his alone.
We are now so overweight that we’ve forgotten what normal looks like. That is a bad situation to be in. So bad it’s understandable that people are looking for a scapegoat, and I think fast food has become that scapegoat. In their rush to sacrificial slaughter, I think people are overlooking the real solution to our problem: education.
That’s what it says at the upper-right of the Happy Meal website. A subtle, background-colored disclaimer addressed directly to the children who are there to “Meet Hello Kitty in McWorld.”
Ostensibly, it’s a warning to these tykes that the free videogames and movie tie-ins on the site are meant to sell them something. "Quick! Guard your impressionable selves with all the cynicism your five years can muster!"
But maybe that’s my cynicism talking. McDonald’s size, traditionally unhealthy products, and the fact they target kids with their promotions makes them a fantastic villain. In many ways, McDonald’s has become a symbol for all that is wrong with corporate America (it’s no coincidence the concept of McDonaldization took their name). Even when they try to be transparent in their marketing, they come off as sleazy to me; the default is distrust.
McDonald’s gives the obesity crisis a face to rally around when fighting this epidemic, but I think it also leads us to focus too much on fast food.
Early this December, San Francisco turned on fast food to tackle childhood obesity. The city decided that for a restaurant to include a toy, the accompanying meal would have to meet certain nutritional guidelines. Naturally, the debate centered largely on McDonald’s, as it effectively banned Happy Meals in their current form.
People haven’t just tried to protect kids with these bans either. L.A. controversially banned construction of new fast food restaurants in an impoverished area, seemingly to protect the poor from their own decisions.
The outright banning of certain foods is an emotionally attractive proposition because it simplifies things. We don’t have to address the underlying cause of the obesity crisis. Instead of needing to confront to complex social and economic factors, we get a tangible bad guy and a simple plan of action.
However well intentioned, if ending obesity is the goal, then advocates for bans are missing the point.
How often were children truly eating McDonald’s? It didn’t take long for people to point out San Francisco’s school lunches aren't healthy enough to meet the standards being imposed, and that isn’t an occasional treat. Instead of targeting fast food, perhaps energy should have been spent on something kids in public schools eat every day.
When it comes to adults, research suggests fast food bans might not be that effective at changing people’s behavior anyway. Instead of trying to make people healthy by depriving them of choice, another study suggested educational measures like calorie labels might have more of an impact.
Certainly fast food is an issue, but it’s only one of many that contribute to the obesity problem. When 90% of us think we're eating healthily despite all evidence to the contrary, it becomes clear the problem is a lack of information. We don’t even know what healthy choices even are. Nobody wants to be unhealthy, so it’s really a matter of making sure people know how much their choices impact them, and how to make the right ones.
Fast food isn’t going to go away, but healthier options have been popping up. What do you buy when eating on the fly?