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The Fast Food Tragedy -- Why Don’t We Get It?

By Marcel J. Hernandez, N.D.

Fast Food TragedyI couldn’t believe what I was reading. In a recent letter to the editor in a Big Island newspaper the writer was looking forward to the opening of several fast food restaurants on the Hilo side and extolling the virtues of fast food. The author of the letter (mistakenly) claimed that there were no scientific studies that proved fast food was unhealthy. He must have been looking for nutrition information in Mad Magazine to make such a statement. All the letter writer had to do was Google “fast food health” and he would have had scores of peer-reviewed studies discussing the damage that fast food does to our bodies and to the environment. The writer demonstrated what I call the ostrich phenomenon – if you stick your head in the sand the rest of the world disappears and all that exists is darkness and the limited myopic confines of your own vision-deprived mind.

Never mind that, In some parts of the world, a lack of access to food of any kind is of tragic proportions, while in the United States, unhealthy eating is cited in study after study as the second biggest killer after smoking. In our fast-paced society, people are eating more processed and fast food than ever before and 60 percent of American adults and 13 percent of children are considered obese as a result. These figures have doubled since 1980.

Americans’ ingestion of fast food has generated other statistics:

* In 2000, the US healthcare system spent $61 billion on the diagnosis, care and prevention of obesity

* In 2008, Americans spent about $115 billion on fast food, more than they spent on higher education, personal computers or new cars.

* Americans spend about half of their food budget on meals and drinks consumed outside the home.

How did today's “super-sized” appetites become the norm? It didn't happen by accident or by some inevitable evolutionary process. It was to a large degree the result of consumer manipulation. Fast food's marketing strategies, which make perfect sense from a business perspective, succeed only when they induce a substantial number of us to overeat.

If one considers some typical modern foods - hamburgers laden with growth hormones, vegetables laced with pesticides, soft drinks full of refined sugar, and foods too numerous to mention whose color and taste have been artificially enhanced by manufactured chemicals - one could easily imagine that the goal of the global food system is simply to provide the global health care system with more customers.

Some people are pulling their heads out of the sand, but for many it is almost too late to reverse the degeneration. In 2008, Caesar Barber, a 56-year-old diabetic and double heart-attack victim from New York, sued McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Wendy's, claiming that his illnesses were partly caused by the food he was eating.

Barber's class-action lawsuit was the first test case in the legal assault against the fast-food industry and its role in the health epidemics that are inundating the American health-care system. Although Barber’s case is still in the courts, last month a federal judge dismissed a similar lawsuit against McDonald's. Surely people who become fat and ill because they eat too much fast food only have themselves to blame?

Maybe not. New findings on the biological effects of fast food suggest that eating yourself into obesity isn't simply due to a lack of self-control. Studies clearly indicate that bingeing on foods that are excessively high in fat and sugar can cause changes to your brain and body that make it hard to resist perpetuating the unhealthy pattern. Some of the studies equate the craving for fast food to a full-blown addiction.

In the past decade, researchers have discovered several hormones that play a role in regulating appetite. People who gain weight develop resistance to these natural regulators. Michael Schwartz, an endocrinologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, explains, "Their brain loses its ability to respond to these hormones as body fat increases. The fatter people get, the more insensitive to regulation they become. Eventually the body interprets the elevated fat level as normal and stops sending ‘stop eating’ messages.”

But how can a survival necessity be addictive? The answer involves a bit of biochemistry. The US Department of Agriculture's recommended daily intake for a typical adult male is 2800 kilocalories and a maximum of 93 grams of fat. A meal at a fast-food outlet -- burger, fries, drink and dessert -- can deliver almost all of that in a single sitting. Biochemists say that a binge of these proportions can trigger physiological changes which mute the hormonal signals that normally tell you when you have had enough.

Proving that fast food is addictive food would make lawsuits against the industry a great deal easier. But the whole topic of addiction has proved surprisingly hard to define. One of the most widely accepted definitions is known as the DSM-IV criteria, devised by the American Psychiatric Association. To be addictive, a substance has to meet at least three of the following criteria:

* Taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended

* Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use

* A great deal of time spent seeking the substance out, using it, or recovering from its effects

* Important social, occupational or recreational activities given up or reduced because of substance use

* Continued use despite knowledge of harmful consequences

* Increased tolerance with use

* Withdrawal symptoms

So the answer to the question, “Why don’t we get it?” is not so cut and dried. After years of counseling patients in making changes to their eating patterns, I finally get it that for many people the ability to change involves more than just an exercise of will. It calls for profound, total, radical transformation biochemically, emotionally and physically. But isn’t that what we’re here to do, anyway?

Dr. Hernandez is happy to address your questions in his column. He may be contacted at hawaiind@BigIsland.net

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