Weight control is one of the most challenging problems facing American society as obesity rates are growing higher and higher while disputes about the reasons for this disaster seem to be endless. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define obesity as “a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater” (“U.S. Obesity Trends”). The figures are shocking: as Alan Greenblatt reports, “nearly two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled over the last 20 years”. Obesity causes a range of illnesses that lead to 300,000 deaths a year, and treating these diseases costs $117 billion annually (Greenblatt). It is no surprise that the problem is being discussed at different levels; however, there is still no unanimity in understanding the core of the problem. To stop the dangerous trend, there is a need to fight its causes; but it cannot be done until the causes are clearly defined. Some blame fast food companies and lack of physical activity, whereas some prefer to lay the blame on the eaters themselves or on their genes. It is not still clear even whether it is fat or carbohydrates that cause obesity.
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However, most of these discussions seem to be nothing more than speculations. It is quite clear that American lifestyle, with its emphasis on consumption, is the main culprit of the growing obesity rates.
This statement seems to be too sententious until some explanation is given. Indeed, American lifestyle encourages consumption – and it touches food industry. Heavy advertising imposes an image of a perfect consumer – the one who buys a lot and gains as much pleasure from his dollars as it is possible. On the one hand, fast food companies encourage consumption of their products, automobile industry encourages purchase of cars, and all other industries do the same. On the other hand, to consume much, one needs to work hard: as a result, an average American spends most of his life sitting in an office with hardly any motion at all, gets back home in his car, and spends his free time consuming advertised products. Everybody is the gainer expect the very average American.
Of course, fast food companies are not the only source of evil, but their guilt is most obvious. When one needs a quick meal, he or she goes to a fast food restaurant where he or she is offered a limited range of products: these are mostly super-sized servings rich on fat. For example, McDonald’s Big Mac accompanied by super-sized servings of Coke and French fries supplies the body with 1,600 calories, or twice as much as the body can assimilate at one sitting (Greenblatt). One may say that nobody forces the consumer to eat all this, but the reality is that Americans get accustomed to super-sized portions and eat the same amount of food at home to match the servings they are given in restaurants (Greenblatt). To embrace a greater audience, fast food companies stuffed even schools with their products. Thus, a norm of consuming unhealthy food is being imposed on the minds of Americans from their early age. There should be warnings on the packing of fast food products about the possible harm to health, like on cigarettes.
The second factor of great importance is the lack of physical activity. Even in case of overeating one could avoid putting on some weight if exercised regularly. Thus excessive calories would be burnt. As the researchers say, “you cannot get weight without consuming more calories than you burn” (Wilder, Cheskin and Margolis 53). However, during the last decades Americans’ physical activity experiences a serious downfall. As Greenblatt reports, “foot and bicycle travel have dropped by 40 percent”, and “many schools no longer require physical education (PE) courses or even let kids out for recess”. The problem is worsened by the living conditions of many Americans, as they often have not enough space at least for a walk. As Jim Rohrer notes, “most people live in the suburbs where there is no place to walk and often no sidewalks” (81). As a result, an average American spends his day sitting in an office, then gets back home in a car (or by bus but very rarely by foot), and spends the evening in front of the TV with some food watching again the advertisements that encourage this way of life.
Indeed, advertising is a serious factor contributing to the propaganda of unhealthy diet as it imposes a certain pattern of behavior. If one is told several times a day that he should eat a hamburger, it is very hard not to eat it finally. Fast food companies get high revenues from their lifetime consumers, and spend a part of it to get more and more consumers. The sums they spend on advertising are astonishing: while The National Cancer Institute has only $2 million a year to propagate its “5-a-day” program, Mars spends 35 times more ($68 million) to advertise its M&Ms candies, and McDonald’s allocates 500 times that amount on its promotions and advertising campaigns (Greenblatt). It is not surprising that the advertisements of fast food companies are more successful.
However, some believe that fast food companies should not be blamed for the growing rates of obesity as they do not force their consumers to eat their products – they only do their business, and everyone is free to decide whether to buy or not. Thus, responsibility for eating much and unhealthy is put exclusively on the eater: “For someone not to know that a Big Mac is unhealthy is ignorance, and ignorance is not the responsibility of the fast-food industry” (Greenblatt). However, this point of view seems to be unfounded. It is very hard for a single person to resist the pressure of the tons of dollars spent on his brainwashing. Otelio Randall draws a parallel with a farm where an animal is put in a small pen to limit movements and stuffed with food to fatten it up (Greenblatt). Consumers are in the same condition: they have little motion and much food. As Jim Rohrer puts it, “let’s not kid ourselves; the restaurant industry wants us to eat like pigs” (81). Therefore, a separate individual can hardly be fully and solely responsible for obesity, as much more powerful forces are involved in the deal.
Besides, the statement that “not to know that a Big Mac is unhealthy is ignorance” is not true also because researchers still cannot agree on what really causes obesity. Some scientists, like Robert Atkins, believe that it is carbohydrates and not fat that makes people obese (Greenblatt). Thus, fast food appears not as harmful as it is expected. However, a powerful counterargument has been provided by Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “The truth is that the skinniest people on the planet — Asians and vegetarians — eat plenty of rice and other carbs” (Greenblatt). Indeed, it seems unbelievable that somebody can become fat because of eating fruits and vegetables.
Therefore, putting blame on eaters and carbohydrates seems to be a shabby argument. The real culprit of high obesity rates is American lifestyle that encourages consumption and does not provide real support for physical activities and healthy diet. Fast food companies should be blamed for the conscious promotion of this behavioral pattern. Thus, when the reasons for obesity are identified, methods to fight it can be offered. It is impossible to rebuild the whole culture at once, but there is a need to start a move in the right direction. Independent researches should be conducted with the aim to study carefully the reasons for obesity and the effects of fast food on health. Every consumer should be informed about the possible side effects on health when he eats fast food. For a single individual, Wilder, Cheskin and Margolis have provided a three-step formula: “changing your behavior, altering your diet, and increasing your physical activity” (59). Government should help its citizens to change their behavior by limiting the advertising power of fast-food companies. They should be required to mention about possible harm in their advertisements.
Thus, a complex issue of obesity and weight control loses much of its complexity when the arguments backed up by big companies’ interests are rejected. Then one gets a clear picture of an animal that is fed off before to be sold. An instinct of consumption cultivated by business giants has become a core of American lifestyle, and it makes Americans the obedient consumers of multimillion-dollar corporations.
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