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Can We Solve Our Obesity Crisis By Transforming Fast Food?

David Freedman argues that the most efficient way to solve the obesity crisis, especially among the poor, is to improve the quality of fast food. Is he right?

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Mexico is now more obese than the United States, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A third of Mexico's population carries a body mass index of at least 30, obesity's official threshold. The American Medical Association recently classified obesity as a disease in and of itself, and it's a well-known gateway to other illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Obesity can take years off your life, disproportionately affects the poor, and adds billions of dollars of drag to our health-care system. It's a problem worth solving.

In the July issue of The Atlantic, David Freedman argues that the most efficient way to solve the obesity crisis, especially among the fast-food-eating poor, is to improve the quality of fast food. This solution, Freedman argues, is threatened by the "Pollanites," devotees of the local-food, small-farm, minimally processed food paradigm famously articulated by journalist Michael Pollan.

He casts the Pollanites as ineffective hypocrites, who enjoy food that's just as "obesogenic"--that is, obesity causing--as the average fast-food meal. He cites a Pollanite recipe for corn and bacon as an example. Freedman makes no secret of his fear of fat; he admits to years ago dropping the oil from his oil and vinegar salad dressing.

"[The] science is, in fact, fairly straightforward," Freedman writes. "Fat carries more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates and proteins do per gram, which means just a little fat can turn a serving of food into a calorie bomb."

This simplified view of fat makes Freedman's simple fix for obesity seem within reach. Fast-food companies can simply dial down the fat and other obesogens, replace them with palatable substitutes, and cure obesity.

Freedman's fat science has been addressed in more detail by others, so I won't go further. Freedman called Tom Philpott at Mother Jones an Atkinite, based on Philpott's rebuttal, a reference to Richard Atkins and his infamously fat-philic Atkins Diet.

The other obesogens Freedman frets over are sugars and refined carbohydrates, or "problem carbs," as he calls them. I agree with him here. But at the same time, he should acknowledge that food processing has the effect of making carbohydrates more accessible. In other words, processing, in general, turns non-problem carbs into problem carbs. This is as true with a sack of whole wheat flour from Whole Foods as it is with tortilla from Taco Bell. 

Feedman doesn't distinguish between good and bad fats the way he differentiates among carbs. Perhaps he doesn't mention good fats because good fat is hard to find in the fast-food world. There are fats that are less bad, such as non-trans-fats, but few undisputedly good fats, like olive oil, can be purchased at the drive-thru. Or found in the 10,000-plus words of Freedman's article.

While the debate rages on over which nutrients more readily pack on cellulite, it's important to remember that caloric intake is only half of the equation behind weight gain or loss. Equally important to the calories you consume is the number of calories you burn, which is a function of your metabolism. The body's metabolism is in constant flux, depending on factors like activity level, age and weight.

Earlier this month in Science, researchers presented compelling evidence of a gene that controls metabolism. They deleted a certain mouse gene that had been suspected of playing a role in regulating metabolism. The engineered mice that lacked this gene became obese, while eating and exercising the same amount as their control counterparts, who weighed about half as much.

The human genome includes a nearly identical gene, and this gene has been found missing in an obese human. It's possible that this gene, even when present, might express itself differently, or be regulated differently, in different individuals. Perhaps it is expressed differently with age.

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