The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 23%--roughly one in four--US children are overweight. A new book, Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin Co.; January 2001), blames much of the increase in child obesity on the fast-food industry.
Obesity has become an epidemic among children. Yale University's Pediatric Clinic is on the front lines in the war against child obesity.
"We have kids coming in now, 10 years old, that are being diagnosed with diabetes," says Mary Savoye, RD, at Yale's Pediatric Clinic. "Type 2 diabetes was something people got when they were 40, because they were overweight. Now 10-,11-,12-year-olds . . . these kids that are overweight are at very high risk for diabetes."
Karen Fragala, who lives in Queens, New York, is taking her daughter Gabrielle, son Joey, and nephew Gary to the McDonald's drive-through--a scene that is repeated in millions of households every day.
Fragala places her order: "Let me have two large fries, BBQ sauce on the side, and a Sprite." The Fragalas have been going to McDonald's three times a week, but recently, she says, they went to the doctor in December and found that their 6-year-old daughter Gabrielle had gained 9 pounds in just 4 months.
"I can see it in her in the last 3 or 4 months," says her mother. "But I feel, because she's pretty active, that it's more the food. It's what she's eating that's making her gain weight."
It's that connection between fast food and obesity that is one of the primary criticisms of the industry Fast Food Nation, whose author is Eric Schlosser.
"If you look at the rise of the obesity rate in the United States, it's grown pretty much in step with the rise in fast-food consumption," says the author. "Now, it's the second leading cause of death in the United States, after smoking."
Schlosser says that there's no question that fast food, especially the most popular fast food, is extremely high in fat. The portion sizes have also increased enormously, so people are eating more of this food and there's more fat in it.
A Big Mac, Super-size fries, and a large coke at McDonald's now packs 1,500 calories, about 40% from fat.
CBS asked McDonald's to respond to Schlosser's charges, but it declined an on-camera interview. In a statement released by the company, it says that Schlosser's opinion is outvoted 45 million to one every single day by that many customers choosing to come to McDonald's.
There's no problem with a healthy adult wanting to eat this food every now and then, says Schlosser. "But the real problem for me is how this food is so heavily marketed to children."
Schlosser says that it started innocently enough--giving a toy with the meal, playgrounds. "But these are very, very crucial years," says Schlosser. "If you look at the ingredients of the fast-food meals that are being heavily marketed to children, they're extremely high in fat, and high in sugar, and high in salt."
Fat-food companies, he says, don't have to produce burgers that contain 75 grams of fat, which is way beyond what anybody needs. It doesn't have to be that way, so why do they do it? he asks.
"They don't have to deal with the long-term consequences of the food," says Schlosser. "If they did, they might change the menu. They've also spent millions of dollars creating a taste for these foods. So all of a sudden, it's very difficult for them to say, 'Wait a minute, the food we've been marketing and selling for decades may not be so healthy. They really don't have the incentive to do that right now. So it's up to the consumers to give them the incentive.'"
Among the recommendations in his book, Schlosser says Congress should ban all fast-food advertising to children under the age of 9.
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