Research paper: What is the biggest factor responsible for Americans’ high fast food consumption?

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Research paper: What is the biggest factor responsible for Americans’ high fast food consumption?

Post  Katrine Haarklau on Fri May 03, 2013 9:57 am

What is the biggest factor responsible for Americans’ high fast food consumption?

“In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music - combined. “(Schlosser). This quote from Schlosser is mind blowing. One thing is certain and that is that America is facing a serious public health issue – obesity. In addition to this, Americans are also internationally known for their unhealthy eating habits and their abnormal ease of access to fast food. This is highly interesting to me because I have now lived in America for one-and-a-half years and I have been visiting nutritionists and psychologists with specializations in eating behavior regularly over a five-year period. I will try to determine the biggest factor responsible for Americans’ high fast food consumption, discuss factors such as the American fast food industry, psychological factors, economic factors, political factors, and the American public, and then also compare America to some European countries.

One answer to my question is the accessibility to fast food and the growing fast food industry. Almost wherever you are, whether it is a large urban city, a tiny town or just a gas-station far away from everything that is called urban, you will find well-known fast food chains or get access to unhealthy snacks, but it seems like the American society can’t get enough of it; the industry is expanding, which makes the access even easier, and their profit is just growing and growing. Schlosser explains in his New York Times article that the growth of the industry comes from a change in the society. For example, some decades ago, the mother in the house stayed at home and made food for the family, but now Americans buy more food at restaurants, mainly fast food restaurants. The society has also grown into a more fast-paced society, with its citizens always busy with work and life, and it is easy and tempting to go for a quick, tasty and cheap food option.

The fast food industry cannot shoulder all of the blame. It might be reasonable to think that, all things considered, adult Americans are responsible for themselves and they can make their own decisions on what food to consume. Then why do so many people purchase more and more fast food, even though they are aware of the negative health effects it can cause. Many scholars in this area now agree that junk food can be addictive. Robyn Chuter, a naturopath and EFT therapist, wrote in her article, “The Hidden Addiction,” that there is “strong evidence that sugar and other refined sweeteners, other refined carbohydrates, fat salt and caffeine are addictive substances, which cause many people to lose control over their ability to regulate their consumption of foods rich in these substances.” Chuter further explains that animal experiments supporting this statement have found that rats being exposed to fattened or/and sweetened food develop changes in their brains equal to what happens if they expose the animals to addicting drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Drawing the parallel between obese Americans and drug addicted Americans might sound a little bit harsh, but this particular parallel can be a big psychological reason for why many Americans have problems with changing their unhealthy eating habits: “With continual over-consumption of junk food or addictive drugs, tolerance progresses to the point where the pleasure centers 'crash'. Now the person simply cannot consume enough of the addictive substance to feel good anymore - but they can't feel 'normal' unless they have their drug or food 'in their system'.” (Chuter). The well-known documentary Supersize Me simply affirms this statement with a healthy man eating McDonalds food for 30 days. He actually started to crave more and more of this food as long as the project developed. I personally have also been struggling with my relationship with food for many years. I can ratify that if I get into an eating pattern where I consume products that contain lots of sugar and unhealthy fats, I will crave it more and more, and over time I need bigger portions to feel the same satisfaction. This confirms that once in such a cycle it is challenging to get out of it – it is actually so difficult that I can understand why people aren’t ever willing to pick up the fight against food addiction. So sugars and sutured fats hidden as “drugs” in food, is definitely a factor in fast food’s effect on Americans.
Seen from an economic perspective, the price for different kinds of food categories is also a major factor for consideration. If unhealthy food is cheaper than more healthy options, this is a big incentive to eat unhealthy food. The United States Department of Agriculture wrote about a study completed by Andrea Carlson and Elizabeth Frazao. They did research on whether healthy food is more expensive. They found out that this depends on the measuring method that is being used. Their conclusion was that foods low in calories (fruit and vegetables) costs more per calorie than less healthy food (high values of saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium). Having a diet including lots of nutrient rich products such as fruit and vegetables is an expensive way to purchase food energy. Explaining further, the study says that it is not that costly to meet the food recommendations when it comes to healthy food items such as grains, dairy and fruit, but if you want to include vegetables or protein rich products, it gets more expensive. So far, the price still matters when it comes to what ability low-income people have to buy healthy, expensive food. But the study also further explains that the outcome of the research is different if its measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size, because then “grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium.” (Carlson, and Frazao). But this is not a good argument, since most of the foods in the “healthy” category are low in calories and people need to consume more portions to meet the recommendations of how much energy you should consume per day. I also have examples of this in my own life. Comparing myself to my roommate, my diet is considered extremely healthy while my roommate’s is considered the opposite. This really shows up on our supermarket receipts, with me clearly having to pay extra for living the healthy lifestyle I have chosen. But not everybody is willing to pay this much or can afford it. Knowing that healthy food is, in general, more expensive than unhealthy food, it is maybe not surprising that research shows that there is a correlation between poor areas and obesity. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that Mississippi, the poorest state in America, has the nation's highest obesity rate, at 34.9 percent. States in the South and Midwest, which in some cases represent the poorest parts of the country, showed the highest incidences of obesity.” (Pomerance). This is just a correlation, though interesting, but we need to have in mind that other factors such as gender, culture, genes, biology and politics play a role in these results.

The American Government can also be a part of the explanation of why Americans are labeled as an unhealthy people. Even though it’s difficult to imagine how problematic it is to direct the entire American nation to greater health, many scholars on this topic argue that the government should be more active in regards to switching the path into a more healthy direction. According to Cummins, the American government subsidizes factory farms, chemical-intensive farming, and food processing which indirectly is a part of making the fast-foods industry’s profit grow even bigger. Science also shows that putting taxes on unhealthy food or subsidizing businesses that grow or sell fruit and vegetables might lead to a healthier people: “Higher fast-food prices were associated with lower weight outcomes particularly among adolescents, suggesting that raising prices would potentially impact weight outcomes. Lower fruit and vegetable prices were generally found to be associated with lower body weight outcomes among both low-income children and adults, suggesting that subsidies that would reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables for lower- socioeconomic populations may be effective in reducing obesity” (Powell, Chriqui, Khan, Wada, and Chaloupka). It appears that the government is subsidizing industries and companies that will enhance the growth of the fast food industry, which again will not help Americans take another diet path, rather do the opposite.

However, it doesn’t help the American government to work faster on this issue if the public opinion is divided on whether it is up to each individual or the American government to take action, which is another reason for why Americans are going the opposite direction from what nutritionists recommend. According to the magazine Recreation & Dance, “48 percent said that obesity is a private matter and personal responsibility that should be dealt with by individuals alone, while 47 percent said that it is a public health issue requiring government intervention”. Yes, these results definitely do not work as a generator for the American government to take action in regards to its public health problem, but many might say that Americans being the most obese people in the world should make the government act. The same article also says that, “Despite the divided opinion regarding government intervention, 62 percent of the respondents said they support the idea of requiring restaurants to list nutrition information on their menus. They also strongly supported government educational campaigns (75%)”. While taking a class about the American government this semester, I have increased my understanding of how difficult it is to deal with this issue. Because of the decentralization of power it is very difficult to get new laws passed and it is fairly easy to block a bill getting passed. It is a complex task to get the different governing bodies, the public, interest groups, committees, departments and organizations on the same page.

Compared to smaller European countries, America’s taxes on food are different. In the Nordic countries for example, “Denmark implemented the world’s first tax that directly targets saturated fat in foods… Any products which contain more than 2.3 percent saturated fat are subject to the tax” (Dwyer). Even though this is a great act for reducing the Danish people’s consuming high values of saturated fat, it also has its downsides. Dairy farmers, who are the main producers of products that will be directly affected by this law, will witness a loss in their revenue. In addition to this, putting tax on items will also just add another burden on citizens with lower incomes. Focusing our attention over to another European country, Norway, where I am from, can help us set this issue in even better perspective. Kiwi, a Norwegian grocery store chain, has for a couple of years been known for cutting the added tax on fruit, vegetables and “keyhole products”. According to, “Keyhole products” are products that contain less fat, salt, and sugar and more fiber compared to other food items in the same food category, decided by authorities in the Nordic countries. Not only does this tax cut encourage people to buy healthy food when grocery stores cut prices on them, but it is also educative and helpful to look for food items labeled with a green keyhole if you do not trust your own knowledge about nutrition.

In conclusion, it appears that there are many factors that can answer my question, and that America is in a bad nutritional cycle as a society. I have discussed social, political, economic, psychological, physical and historical factors that keep this downward sloping spiral spinning. The solutions to these problems each deserve papers by themselves. But only the future can tell us who will act on these issues. My opinion on what is the biggest factor is that unhealthy food it addicting, and this is a reality more individuals have to be aware of and educated about.

Chuter, Robyn. "Food: The Hidden Addiction ." . Natural Health & Vegetarian Life. Web. 21 Apr 2013.
Powell, L. M. , J.F. Chriqui, T. Khan, R. Wada, and F.J. Chaloupka. "Assessing the potential effectiveness of food and beverage taxes and subsidies for improving public health: a systematic review of prices, demand and body weight outcomes." . International Association for the Study of Obesity. Web. 21 Apr 2013.
Pomerance, Rachel. "Why We're So Fat: What's Behind the Latest Obesity Rates." . USNews. Web. 21 Apr 2013. <>.
"News, Journal of Physical Education." Recreation & Dance. 75:1.7-8 n. page. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <Recreation & Dance>.
Dwyer, Marissa. "Should governments have a say in what we eat? Should they care?." . Nourishing the Planet. Web. 21 Apr 2013.
Schlosser, Eric. "Fast Food Nation The Dark Side of the All-American Meal ." New York Times on the Web . New York Times Company . Web. 24 Apr 2013. <>
Carlson, Andrea, and Elizabeth Frazao. "Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price." United States Department of Agriculture . USDA. Web. 28 Apr 2013. <
Cummins, Ronnie . "America's obesity and diabetes epidemic: Junk food kills
"Information about the keyhole in English." Enkelt å velge sunnere . Mattilsynet and Helsedirektoratet . Web. 28 Apr 2013. <>.

Katrine Haarklau

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