We all know that fast food isn’t the healthiest, but these calorie, fat and sodium counts from popular fast-food restaurants are still really horrifying. More than 10,000 milligrams of sodium in one order of chicken wings? I don’t think I eat 10,000 milligrams of sodium in a week.
The article itself focuses, predictably, on The Obesity Epidemic, and how these kinds of foods are making us all fat. More importantly, these kinds of foods are making us really, really unhealthy. And while most of us probably realize that eating a whole cheesecake is not going to be great for us, some of the foods on this list are particularly sneaky — like a chicken burrito that has more than a day’s worth of fat, calories and sodium. I don’t think that most people are under the impression that Chipotle is healthy, but if you’re on the run and trying to make a health-conscious choice, the chicken option might be your pick. Similarly, the portion size at some of these restaurants is unreal — if a dish is marketed as a “personal pizza,” it shouldn’t be enough food for four.
Part of the problem with the American dependence on fast food is cultural, which is enabled by (and to some degree helps to create) the structural problems that keep us from accessing the healthiest foods possible. We’re bizarrely puritan when it comes to centering pleasure in our lives — we just don’t do it. We think that Just Say No works for food and for sex — two of the most basic human pleasures and (on a species-wide, if not individual, level) necessities — but then we heavily market the most reductive and unhealthy versions of both. We’re inundated with advertising that uses women’s bodies as symbols of sex itself and with mainstream pornography that centers heterosexual male experience and dominance. Culturally, we’re not focused on holistic sexual pleasure so much as easy titillation and shock-value sex, coupled with disdain and judgment towards people who actually do have sex in whatever way is deemed outside of local values — whether that’s outside of marriage, or at too young of an age, or outside of a monogamous relationship, or with someone of the same sex, or wherever else we draw that line (and we like to draw and re-draw that line).
We do the same thing with food (and obviously I’m far from the first person to make this connection). We talk a big game about The Horrors of Obesity and the necessity of healthy eating. We blame feminism for taking women out of the kitchen and into the workplace. We look at fat people like they’re moral failures. We watch television shows like The Biggest Loser, which contribute to the cultural myth that If You Just Work Hard Enough, You’ll Be Ok. We ascribe fatness to simply eating too much.
And then we subsidize the worst kinds of foods, and we don’t emphasize eating as something important and pleasurable; we make it about pure consumption. We make sure that healthy food is available to the relatively wealthy, while the poor have to travel further and spend more to access the same. Those same lower-income neighborhoods where fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce are inundated with fast-food chains. And while of course there is a place for encouraging individuals to make better food choices, that’s easier said than done when 90% of what’s available to you is processed and unhealthy.
We also emphasize the Bigger Faster More model of eating. Small portions are frowned upon. Meat is heavily marketed as “man food,” and anything small or vegetable-based is girly and emasculating (you mean your girlfriend makes you eat quiche?). Restaurants like the Olive Garden promote their food by making their portions unlimited. Restaurants like PF Chang’s heap four portions of noodles into a single entree. Of course, if they didn’t, customers would flip, and would feel like they weren’t getting enough food for their money.
We also necessitate fast eating because we’re working so much and so damned hard (even as many of our jobs are largely sedentary). The lack of pleasure-centering extends to our work lives as well. American companies typically don’t offer much in the way of parental leave, let alone vacation time. And government-required vacation or leave time? Forget about it. A few years ago, there was a telling moment in the George W. Bush / John Kerry presidential debates where a divorced mother of three got up to ask a question, and prefaced it by saying that she worked three jobs. Bush praised her, saying, “You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”
No, it’s not fantastic. And it’s contributing to the poor health of our nation. Healthy lifestyles take effort. They take time, and in our current culture, they take money. If a single mom with three kids lives in a place like Harlem, and works three jobs to stay afloat, when is she going to have the time to take the bus to a supermarket on the Upper East Side to buy vegetables (for non-American or non-New-York readers, Harlem is a neighborhood that is traditionally lower-income and of-color; the Upper East Side is traditionally white and wealthy)? How is she going to transport food for four on public transportation? How is she going to do that several times a week, because fruit and vegetables perish quickly? How is she going to afford frequent trips to the supermarket to buy enough vegetables for four people? Why would she spend $4 for a small bunch of asparagus or $7 for two packages of salad mix when for the same amount she can buy frozen chicken nuggets or pizza that will actually fill her kids up?
It’s also worth noting that the kinds of health problems caused by lack of access to healthy food and poor environmental factors are devastating — the chances of our hypothetical single mom having diabetes or a physical disability or asthma or a host of other health complications are higher if she lives in Harlem versus the Upper East Side, making her travels for food all the more onerous. The chances of those conditions going untreated or under-treated are also higher if she’s low-income.
I’m not a parent and I don’t live in a food desert and I’m not poor and I only work one job. I make a concerted effort to eat healthy and to exercise. But even with all of those privileges in place, it’s hard, and there are a lot of nights when I end up eating a bowl of pasta or a can of soup because I just don’t have the energy to really cook something nutritious. Or I end up ordering food and eating it at my desk while I work, and not really thinking about how much I’m eating or what’s in it. I’m certainly not taking the time to really enjoy the process of eating. I’m also fairly well-educated when it comes to food and making healthy individual choices, but I’m still occasionally shocked when I see the amount of added sugar in every-day food items, or how much sodium is packed into just about anything you don’t make for yourself. It’s easy to say that people who eat 5 Big Macs a day shouldn’t be surprised when their health suffers; it’s a lot harder to argue that people should intuitively know how all of their food is processed and prepared. A lot of this stuff isn’t common-sense — personal pizzas that should serve four, smoothie chains that use high-calorie dairy base, restaurants that coat your salad with creamy dressing. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect individuals to bear the burden of guessing just how bad a restaurant’s food really is.
In an ideal world, we would re-haul all of these structural impediments to healthy eating in one fell swoop. We’d have a marked cultural shift that centered holistically pleasurable experiences as opposed to simply consumptive ones. We would value independent business-owners more, and we would have an economic system that enabled small businesses to stay afloat in the face of big chains — we’d have fewer Olive Gardens and more localized cooking, and not every mall in America would come equipped with a PF Chang’s and a Cheesecake Factory. But since that isn’t going to happen any time soon, what responsibility do we think fast-food marketers and purveyors have to their customers, in the short-term? Right now, most of the onus is on the consumer to figure out what the healthiest options are — but that doesn’t work when fast-food and chain restaurants are intentionally misleading about the contents of their food. I know a lot of Feministe readers don’t like calorie counts, and they’re problematic for a lot of reasons, but I am a big fan of requiring chain restaurants to disclose the nutritional contents of their food (including sodium, fat, saturated fat, protein, sugar, carbs and fiber — simple calorie-counts don’t take into account good fat vs. bad fat, or how how much protein you’re getting). But nutritional information can’t be the end-all be-all — again, it puts the onus on the consumer to choose from a host of bad options. It also implies that food can be the enemy, and that healthfulness requires constant counting and tabulating. And that’s not really how it should work, either.
Requiring that restaurants eliminate trans fats and curb sodium levels, like New York has done, is another good start, even if it’s hardly a solution. But broad structural issues aside, if we recognize that fast food restaurants are in fact feeding a large chunk of the American public, what responsibilities do those fast-food chains hold? And what should be the consequences of their feeding people the foods that lead to diabetes, heart disease and a host of other health problems?
*A note about this post: It is not about the obesity epidemic or fatness or the size of someone’s body. Fat-hating comments are not relevant and not accepted.
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