This week was the first time that McDonalds posted a decline in sales in nearly a decade and shares dropped to a 52-week low. Before we begin celebrating the demise of fast food, consider that fast food competitors like Burger King and Taco Bell are still reporting profits. Is this just a bump in the road or sign of things to come? Only time will tell…
Just what is the allure of much-derided fast food? It’s been vilified in numerous books, documentaries and in government crackdowns, but our collective love of McFood doesn’t seem to be slowing down. People know that fast food is unhealthy, but this knowledge doesn’t necessarily limit intake (1,2). So, is it a matter of taste, cost or simply convenience that continues to line the pockets of fast food giants while we buy bigger pants?
While many argue that fast food is generally low quality and doesn’t actually taste very good, there must be *something* that brings 40 million consumers to McDonalds EVERY DAY. The trifecta of “addictive” food tastes found in fast food – fat, sugar and salt – have been linked to a increased intake of nutrient-poor, energy-dense foods and rising rates of obesity (3). But what comes first: taste preference or branding knowledge?
While some interesting links between obesity and sugar and fat preference have been reported, results have been equivocal (4). If we look at young children, Bouhlal et al. (5) found that toddlers’ intake was positively impacted by salt (that is, they ate more when salt was present), yet the addition of fat and sugar did not impact intake.
Fast food restaurants blatantly use marketing and branding (not to mention the toys!) to hook us at a young age… and it works. Robinson et al. (6) compared taste preference among low-income preschoolers based on branding – not surprisingly, kids preferred the taste of an identical food when it was branded as being from McDonalds vs. unbranded. Cornwell and McAlister (7) suggest that this familiarity with food branding influences childrens’ so-called SFS (sugar-fat-salt) palate and may “fundamentally change children’s taste palates” to prefer nutrient-poor, junk food and actually dislike or refuse foods without strong SFS components. How’s that for nurture over nature!
Many people say that healthy food is too expensive. In fact, the 20-year CARDIA study found that when yearly inflation was considered, fast food prices dropped while foods like milk became more expensive (8). Not surprisingly, higher prices were linked to a decline in intake regardless of food type. But does this mean the price war with fast food is lost? Absolutely not!
A USDA study published in May 2012 showed that healthy foods, like veggies and fruit, are actually CHEAPER per calorie than most fast food, which means those fast food empty calories are a double-whammy of cost: wallet and waistline. Being the skeptics that we are, we wanted to look at straight-up cost for one of our recipes… We crunched some numbers on our upcoming Chicken and Broccoli Casserole make-over and the tally came out to $3.99 per person (the dish makes six servings). Although there are dollar menus out there, by and large a fast food will set you back more than $4. Take that fast food!
Is the mere presence and proximity of fast food that influences our consumption? Sounds like a good theory, although research doesn’t support it (9,10). What about time – where else can you have a meal prepared and served to you in under five minutes? Well, you have us there fast food!
Dave et al. (2) found that being single, male, perceiving fast food as convenient and disliking cooking were all linked to higher fast food consumption. We also know that parents with long work hours and higher levels of perceived stress are more likely to bring home fast food to their families (11,12).
The most common parental stressors linked to fast food consumption (and subsequent childhood obesity) include poor physical and mental health, financial concerns, and leading a single-parent household (12). Obviously, bigger issues than simple convenience are at play here.
No Baloney’s advice. While the “less is more, none is better” philosophy certainly fits when it comes to fast food, are we ever going to ban fast food? Doubtful. There is far more to our obsession with fast food than simply the terrible food itself – socioecomonic factors play a huge role, so simply banning fast food won’t address these deeper issues. There are few people who can honestly say they never, ever eat fast food – we’ve all been on a road trip where our only options were skipping lunch or fast food! But you can certainly minimize your exposure to McFood and make better choices more often:
- Cook at home. Easier said than done, but eating at home as often as possible is your best bet. Here are some tips for planning weekly meals (I have a chalkboard in the kitchen I do this on!) and smarter grocery shopping. In terms of quick and easy recipes, there is no better place than the internet! This Canadian Living page has 326 recipes!
- Limit kid’s exposure. Kids who are blissfully unaware of the Happy Meal’s existence are less likely to ask their parents to go to McDonalds. Quebec successfully banned ads targeting kids and it paid off.
- Know the enemy. There are some decent fast food offerings out there, so try to make the “healthiest” fast food choices when you do have it. Here are some tips from Dietitians of Canada, Best Health magazine, and Health magazine.
- Glanz K, et al. Why Americans eat what they do: taste, nutrition, cost, convenience and weight control concerns as influences on food consumption. J Am Diet Assoc 1998; 98: 1118-26.
- Dave JM, et al. Relationship of attitudes toward fast food and frequency of fast food intake in adults. Obesity (Silver Springs) 2009; 17: 1164-70.
- Ifland JR, et al. Refined food addiction: a classic substance use disorder. Med Hypotheses 2009; 72: 518-26.
- Donaldson LF, et al. Taste and weight: is there a link? Am J Clin Nutr 2009; 90: 800S-3S.
- Bouhlal S, Issanchou S, Nicklaus S. The impact of salt, fat and sugar levels on toddler food intake. Br J Nutr 2011; 105: 645-53.
- Robinson TN, et al. Effects of fast food branding on young children’s taste preferences. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2007; 161: 792-7.
- Cornwell TB, McAlister AR. Alernative thinking about starting points of obesity. Development of child taste preferences. Appetite 2011; 56: 428-39.
- Duffey KJ, et al. Food price and diet and health outcomes: 20 years of the CARDIA study. Arch Intern Med 2010; 170: 420-6.
- Fleischhacker SE, et al. A systematic review of fast food access studies. Obes Rev 2011; 12: e460-71.
- Richardson AS, et al. Neighborhood fast food restaurants and fast food consumption: a national study. BMC Public Health 2011; 11: 543.
- Devine CM, et al. Work conditions and the food choice coping strategies of employed parents. J Nutr Educ Behav 2009; 41: 365-70.
- Parks EP, et al. Influence of stress in parents on child obesity and related behaviours. Pediatrics 2012; 130: e1096-104.