W ith the articulation of obesity as an epidemic came attempts to locate its origins. Fast food, as a rather obvious culprit, has emerged as the unscrupulous enemy of health (and thinness), especially for children. As a result, the industry has garnered all varieties of critical attention in recent years. In response to the outcry of scholars and activists, and, most directly, legal challenges, fast food has begun to reform its image.
A recent flurry of criticism addresses the linked ethical and nutritional failures of fast food and its increasingly global impact on eating habits and health. Eric Schloss-er's critically acclaimed and widely taught Fast Food Nation (2001) paved the way for more recent and popular books like Greg Cristor's Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (2004) and Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat this Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America (2005). Perhaps most popularly damning the industry for its role in creating the obesity epidemic is Spurlock's 2003 Sundance award-winning documentary Super Size Me.
The film documents Spurlock's weight gain and ever-declining health as he embarks on a McDonald's-only diet in order to demonstrate the ill effects of fast food. He argues that encouraging overeating and frequent consumption of fast food is in fact the profit-hungry intent of McDonald's advertising, contrary to its legal defense, which suggested that consumers know that fast food is fattening and unhealthy and should be eaten in moderation. While many agree that lawsuits against the fast-food industry are outrageous, others have drawn parallels between anti-fast-food and anti-tobacco litigation, arguing that there must be corporate accountability for public health (Mello et al. 2003).
In the wake of bad PR, McDonald's and the rest of the fast-food industry have begun to clean up their image. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Frito-Lay are among the big names that have in recent years sponsored campaigns to get kids more active and promote "healthy lifestyles." In addition, fast-food chains have introduced or vamped up the marketing of a variety of healthier alternatives. Most places are offering more salads and veggie burgers and are devoting more airtime to promoting them. McDonald's has been promoting its new white-meat chicken nuggets, while Wendy's has started including orange slices in its children's meals. Denny's and other fast-food diners have added vegetable and heart-smart sides to compete with their classic French fries.
Americans spend so much time eating away from home that a diet was even created for those who regularly consume fast food. Subway has cashed in on spokesperson Jared Fogle's extreme weight-loss success story, marketing itself as the fast-food alternative for adults and children (Buss 2004). After the success of the Subway diet and Super Size Me, most of the fast-food restaurants make healthy options very obvious on the menu. In addition, they publish information on the fat content of their foods so that the consumer can make an informed decision. The results of these changes in terms of childhood obesity remain to be seen. What is clear is that the diet industry is ever-expanding its reaches and is always big business, even for fast food.
See also Children; Fogle; Food Choice; Obesity Epidemic; Spurlock
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