Gurney's Inn
January 17, 2007

Educators Address the 'Fast Food Craze'

Americans are eating larger servings of food than ever before and their expanding waistlines are proof positive. Declining physical activity and more calorie-rich foods have only intensified an obesity problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have dubbed an epidemic. Indeed, 60 percent of all Americans are either overweight or obese.

Fast food is one culprit that has gained notoriety in recent years with increasing reports and documentaries on the harmful effects of the fare being served in this industry.

In light of this concern, Cornell Cooperative Extension formed educational programs on obesity, diabetes and healthy eating using Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me as its muse.

Susan Wilk, an educator, and Alysa Hacker, a registered dietician, both at Cornell Cooperative, along with Peggy Krause, an exercise physiologist at Southampton Hospital were invited to speak at a Sag Harbor Parents-Teachers Association meeting on "Protecting Families from the Fast Food Craze" last Thursday.

In Super Size Me, Spurlock goes on a 30-day McDonald's binge, eating only food from the fast food restaurant to show how it affects the body. He follows three simple rules: he can only eat what is available over the counter; he cannot supersize his meal unless offered; and he has to eat every item on the menu at least once. A team of doctors monitor him throughout the experiment.

Spurlock gained 25 pounds in one month, his cholesterol levels increased dramatically and his liver function started suffering, surprising even the specialists looking after him.

According to the film, one in four Americans visits a fast food restaurant every day; one would have to walk for seven straight hours to burn off a Super Sized coke, fries and Big Mac from McDonald's; and left "unabated" obesity will surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in America.

The average American lifestyle has changed dramatically over the last few decades, Wilk noted. Children played outside more than they do now, food portions were smaller and television was not the prime source of entertainment. Now, "We are the Pepsi generation" – walking less and eating more calorie-rich foods – "Many of us don't know the difference between a serving size and a portion."

The result has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the last 20 years and the ensuing health problems. "Diabesity," an epidemic of obesity-related diabetes, is "threatening America," Wilk said.

Known as adult-onset diabetes, Type 2 diabetes mostly affects people over the age of 40, but the growing trend of obesity among children has made this populace a viable contender. In fact, one out of every three children born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.

A metabolic disorder, Type 2 is characterized mainly by insulin resistance and deficiency and hyperglycemia. It is incurable. With Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes as it is often diagnosed in children and young adults, the body fails to produce insulin. Unlike Type 1, Type 2 is preventable.

As a teenager, Alysa Hacker was obese. She has since lost most of that weight, but prevention, she stressed, is crucial. "I struggle with my weight even to this day, so prevention really is key," she said.

Hacker pointed to dietary, physical and environmental contributors to the diabetes epidemic. Soft drinks, trans fats and large portions of refined carbohydrates have taken precedence over fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, the french fry is currently the most eaten vegetable in America.

Physically, Hacker related, Americans are less active than ever, driving more, and spending more time in front of their televisions or computer screens. The average American watches four hours of television per day.

And children are greatly influenced by their surroundings, Hacker continued. At school, kids with healthy snacks are lured by the junk food their peers are eating. Also, fewer meals are prepared at home because parents are working harder and longer hours.

Hacker advised parents to be more involved in their children's diets, teaching portion control and how to prepare healthier meals; limit what foods to keep at home and let the kids decide how much to eat giving them a sense of control; encourage more physical activity; promote positive body image and focus on lifestyle not weight – no "bad" or "forbidden" foods.

Peggy Krause, of Southampton Hospital, also advised not to use fast food as a reward for good behavior because "that puts value on a bad thing."

Educators and activists alike may be shedding more light on the 'fast food craze' gripping this country, but the numbers show that swaying public opinion will take some work.

Spurlock reports that Americans spent $3 billion a year on fast food in 1972; today they spend over $110 billion annually. Forty percent of American meals are eaten outside the home.

"Fast food started attacking our nation and people have gotten used to eating out," said Wilk.

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