What you eat is up to you; it’s a personal thing. But what you eat has consequences that reach across the earth, out into our atmosphere, and right back down into your own neighborhood. This series should help you think a little more deeply about what you eat and how it affects not only your health, but the health of the people and the planet around you.
Fast Food = Bad
It’s a pretty obvious equation, right? It’s kind of like saying war is bad or racism is bad. Everybody knows it; we shouldn’t even need to talk about it anymore.
But the average American eats fast food 150 times a year (that’s 3 times a week!!), so it seems the conversation is far from over.
What Is Fast Food?
Fast food is everywhere. If it takes less than 10 minutes to order, pay, and eat, it’s fast food. If it’s wrapped in cardboard, paper, plastic, or other disposables, it’s fast food. If the “restaurant” sign blinks at you in neon or primary colors (or both) from the side of the highway, it’s fast food. If the “chef” is a 16-year-old getting paid almost nothing per hour, it’s fast food.
What’s In It?
Fast food is laden with saturated fat, salt, and other fun stuff like high-fructose corn syrup, industrial chemicals, and preservatives. Meanwhile, because the ingredients are highly processed and as far from fresh as you can get, fast food is almost devoid of things you need to be healthy, like fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients.
And boy, does fast food ever have a lot of calories. Lots and lots of empty calories. Many fast food menu favorites clock in at more than 1,000 calories per item. That’s more than half of what you should eat each day, in one little, non-reusable, cardboard container.
With all those tasty ingredients, it’s no wonder that the biggest diseases we’re facing today – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer – have all been linked to eating too much fast food.
Is It Bad For The Environment?
Just look around next time you walk down the street. What litter is in the gutters? You don’t have to look hard to find something branded by McDonald’s, Subway, or Starbucks. That’s because fast food packaging is the number one source of urban waste. In 2010, the US produced 1.8 million tons of fast food packaging. That’s the weight of about 15,000 blue whales!
And where does this single-use, eminently disposable packaging come from?
Picture a tropical rainforest heaving with life, echoing with the calls of millions of species of trees, animals, birds, and insects. Now picture that vibrant scene being burnt and bulldozed to make way for a pesticide-heavy crop of quick-growing trees than in turn are torn from the earth to wrap your two-minute meal.
Is that all too exotic for you? Too far from home?
Forget the rainforest. The same thing is happening right now in the southern US. A report from Ohio State University estimates that an area the size of Los Angeles – of forest, swampland, and endangered habitat – is being cleared each year to make way for pine tree plantations.
By 2030, the researchers estimate, 10 million acres will have been destroyed. Because monoculture is far less efficient at absorbing CO2, this translates into about 700,000 tons (5,830 blue whales!) more carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere each year.
All that environmental damage and we haven’t even talked about the food!
I’m going to look more closely at meat’s impact on the environment a little later in this series, so for now, just a few quick stats: meat production is responsible for about a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases; livestock use 30 per cent of the earth’s surface; and 70 per cent of former Amazon forests are now used for grazing.
What Else Should I Know?
There are so many insidious things we should know about fast food, but I’m not writing an encyclopedia, so here are a few of my (least) favorites.
1. Fast food causes famine. Bulldozing rainforests is not just bad for the plant and animal life that once lived there and it’s not just bad for our atmosphere. When a rainforest goes, the people who used to live off the abundance of that forest lose their homes, their source of food, and their way of life. Though the meat industry does provide work for some local people, many more are displaced and left with nothing. The same fast food addiction that is causing unparalleled overnutrition in the west contributes to famine in other parts of the world.
2. Fast food targets kids. At home, fast food marketing is a multi-billion dollar industry. Much of it is targeted directly (and aggressively) at kids. Pester power is the fast food industry’s best friend; one study found that 84% of parents take their kids to a fast food restaurant at least once a week. No wonder childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last three decades.
3. You pay for fast food, whether you eat it or not.The US government spends billions of dollars subsidizing the production of corn and soy. These artificially cheap crops are used to feed the animals that end up as burgers, nuggets, and unidentifiable meaty lumps at your favorite fast food joint. The subsidies ensure that fast food corporations get a sweet deal on meat – which is why you can get a burger for a buck and the fast food industry still clears billions in profits a year.
4. The USDA supports fast food. Once upon a time, the USDA set up an organisation called Dairy Management which exists solely to convince Americans eat more cheese. It does this by funding the development and marketing of such heart-stopping delights as Domino’s Wisconsin Six-Cheese Pizza and Taco Bell’s Steak Quesadilla (which, according to their website, goes great with a Chicken Grilled Stuft Burrito).
According to a New York Times article, “Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.”
Yes, the ridiculously profitable fast food industry gets financial help marketing its terrifyingly unhealthy products from an organisation set up by the government agency responsible for the nation’s nutrition guidelines. Mind boggling.
Should I Eat Fast Food?
NEVER never never never.
As I said at the beginning of this post, what you eat is a personal choice.
But dammit, there is nothing good about fast food. Nothing. It is killing us and it is killing the earth. And every time you have a burger or fries or a shake at one of these places, so are you. 42.3% of fast food workers agree, their jobs and their employers are making the world a worse place.
What Can I Eat Instead?
Anything. Yes, literally any food (except junk food, which we’ll tackle next month) is better for your health and the world around you.
But I’m too busy to eat slower food. No, you’re not. OK, maybe if you’re a single parent working three jobs just to get by, I’ll cut you some slack. But for most of you, your “too busy” excuse doesn’t cut it. If your life is too busy to spend more than 10 minutes on dinner, then your life is broken and you need to fix it.
But I can’t afford to eat healthy food. Again, this is just not true. Even if you are that single parent of three, plenty of experiments show that shopping and cooking (learn to cook!) costs less than eating fast food. And that’s without taking into account the medical costs you’ll eventually incur from eating crap all the time. Even if healthy food did cost more, let’s get real, most of us can afford to spend a little more on food.
But fast food is really tasty! There’s a reason for that. Billions of dollars of chemical engineering go into making fast food trigger the yummy response in your brain (yes, that’s the technical term). Once your brain goes “yum”, the crazy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt in fast food take over. They set off addictive-type responses, so once you’ve had a little, you just want more. Which means that for most people, the best approach to fast food is never never never; moderation is not an option when you’re addicted.
Eating is one of very few basic human needs. It deserves more time, attention, and care than even the best fast food meal could ever deliver.
Where Can I Find Out More?
No free refills: fast food packaging and the Southern forests
The health effects of fast food
What’s really in your burger? Toucans, tapirs, and tropical forests.
Fast food vs health food: which is more affordable?
A photographic comparison of fast food ads and fast food reality
Fast food outlets are kind of dirty
What’s in your fast food? (Hint, it’s not food)
The Cheeseburger Footprint
Fast Food Nation
Photo by laverrue
Should I Eat This? The Complete Series
- Should I Eat This? A Guide To Food In The 21st Century
All about the series and why I feel compelled to write it.
- Should I Eat This? Part One: Fast Food
Think you know everything there is to know about fast food? This might just surprise you.
- Should I Eat This? Part Two: Junk Food
You know junk food is bad for you, right? You don’t know the whole story.
- Should I Eat This? Part Three: Fake Health Food
Food companies lie to you every day. Here’s how to spot the fakes.
- Should I Eat This? Part 4.0: Meat & The Environment
Meat isn’t just about animal welfare. It’s people welfare, too.
- Should I Eat This? Part 4.1: Meat & Your Health
Pesticides, painkillers, and slime? Can these really be ingredients in meat? And why does meat have ingredients anyway?
- Should I Eat This? Part 5: Fish
What’s in a plate of sushi? And what does the military have to do with fishing?
- Should I Eat This? Part 6: Eggs & Dairy
Cruelty and environmental destruction by the dozen.
Should I Eat This? Part 7: Grains
Finally, something you should totally eat. Possibly.
- Should I Eat This? Part 8: Fruits & Veggies
Not only should you eat these, you should eat more.
- Should I Eat This? Cheat Sheet
The quick and dirty guide to eating clean.
- Should I Eat This? The Flowchart
A decision-making chart for those insoluble food conundrums.