Sunday, November 26, 2006

Fast Food is Making Me Fat!

Do you love McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's? If so, why? If not, why not? Is fast food bad for you or not? Is the heavy consumption of fast food a social problem? A public health problem? No problem at all?

Who is more responsible for obesity in America - the obese people or the fast food companies? What can social science research teach us about this question? Hmm...

Talking heads in the media tell us that the fast food companies are peddling cheap, unhelathy crap because they can, and they can make us buy their junk food. Or, media types (John Stossel comes to mind) tell us that people get fat because they eat too much and don't get enough exercise. The assumption here is that people are deciding to spend their time eating and doing things other than exercising. Are these assumptions reasonable or not? Here is another question that some social scientific thinking can help us answer.

Science suggests that the assumptions made by "conservatives" regarding fast food consumption are simply not reasonable. Here's something to think about: Our brains are wired to want food when food is available. This biological urge to eat and store up fat researves varies in intensity from one person to another, but we all have that urge. Eating to store fat goes back to prehistory when the food supply was uncertain and packing on some fat when the opportunity presented itself was a good strategy for surviving lean times.

Even worse, our decisions about what to eat are not generally part of some rational, long-term plan. Most of our decisions are really driven by peer pressure, time constraints, fatigue ("I'm tired and just want some dinner."), information that we receive and process without much conscious reflection, and prejudices and biases that vary in nature from one person to another. YOur childhood is also a powerful influence on bahvaior. If dinner often came from Burger King or Arby's when you were growing up, chances are you still like fast food.

Social pressures do, undeniably, shape our behavior. Relentless marketing efforts do influence buying decisions. Our feeling, probably not based on reality, that we are frantically busy and haven't got time for "real" food today also drives our buying decisions. And hundreds of food buying decisions per year add up to a fast food diet or some other sort of diet.

Lesson: If you avoid fast food, maybe you shouldn't feel too proud of yourself! Likewise, if you have turned into a fast food junkie, you shouldn't be too hard on yourself.

And on a slightly different subject...

For culture critics fast food represents yet another form of cultural imperialism. We are infiltrating and umdermining local culture with our bland, generic, unhealthy fast food. Never mind that fast food chains really do adapt themselves to local culture in ways large and small. The McDonalds in Odessa, Ukraine (actually there are at least 2 locations) charges extra for condiments. In India, McDonalds does not serve beef. In China, McDonald's restaurants are cool hangouts and date destinations, at least for the younger crowd. I think some fast food places in Europe serve beer and wine. So, here is some (adminittedly weak) evidence that fast food restaurants are shaped by the culture of other countries.

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