Health | September 2012 | By Sam Oches

Winning the Blame Game

Critics say fast food is partly to blame for the growing obesity epidemic. Here’s how the industry can start to prove critics wrong.

There’s a man who panhandles at a North Carolina grocery store every day, even in the intense, humid summers. His faithful dog, Sugar, keeps him company as passing motorists hand him money or maybe a small bag of groceries.

This man—let’s call him John—has found himself in a situation that is all too common in today’s economic environment. According to a September 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans, or 15.1 percent of the nation’s population, live in poverty. And a recent Federal Reserve study found that the average American family’s median net worth dropped nearly 40 percent between 2007 and 2010, from $126,400 to $77,300.

Thing is, John is not a skinny man. In fact, standing no taller than five-foot-five and surely weighing in at more than 250 pounds, John is obese. At first blush, John’s situation is an interesting juxtaposition: A man who barely scrapes by and is forced to beg for money carries a weight associated with overabundance. But when 6 p.m. rolls around each day, critics might say his weight becomes a little bit clearer: John takes what money he’s collected for the day, ties Sugar to a tree across the street, and walks into a major national quick serve, where he gobbles down a burger for dinner.

Despite the difficult times that continue to plague most Americans, the quick-serve industry is once again picking up steam. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) predicted in its 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast that the quick-service industry would do $174 billion in U.S. sales this year, a 3.1 percent climb over 2011. Meanwhile, a recent report from financial services firm Rabobank estimated that consumer spending on food away from home will overtake spending on food at home by 2018, with quick serves being one of the primary beneficiaries.

“We view the dining-out trend as a very long-term trend,” says Nicholas Fereday, vice president and global senior analyst for Rabobank. “We just don’t think this is some type of sea change in people’s consumer response. All the indicators are that we’ll return to this long-term trend, as people are in the everlasting search for convenience.”

Indeed, convenience, along with affordability and taste, has always been a primary driver of fast food’s success. But as these qualities have fueled climbing sales at quick serves across the country, the obesity rate has also jumped to epidemic proportions. Today, more than one out of three adults and one out of six kids are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With the economy still struggling and folks like John increasingly turning to these affordable food options, critics—including nutritionists, politicians, and members of the media—have often suggested the industry has had a major hand in inflating the obesity numbers.

Right or wrong, the industry has earned a reputation as deliverer of unhealthy food to people who can’t afford to eat more meals at home.

While the CDC says there is no way to draw a straight line between obesity and income levels, it’s easier to do so with women than men. Forty-two percent of women with income below 130 percent of the poverty level (approximately $29,000 annually for a family of four) are obese, compared with 29 percent with income at or above 350 percent of the poverty level ($77,000) and 39 percent between 130 and 350 percent of the poverty level. For men, however, only 33 percent of men with income at or above 350 percent of the poverty level are obese, compared with 29 percent with income below 130 percent of the poverty level and 35 percent with income between 130 and 350 percent of the poverty level.

It’s impossible to prove that people like John are obese because of fast-food consumption. The point, however, is that this shouldn’t matter; none of these numbers should matter. What matters is the industry has taken its lumps and has a long way to go in cleaning up its reputation.

“I think the industry is fighting a bit of an uphill battle because they are an easy scapegoat, because it’s out there and very highly visible, and it is an easy target—people don’t necessarily take responsibility for their own eating behavior,” says Maeve Webster, director of Chicago-based research firm Datassential.

Of course, many companies have taken major steps to clean up their act. McDonald’s, for example, has rolled out healthier menu options while also developing active-lifestyle promotions, like its recent Olympics-themed “Champions of Play” initiative. But the actions of brands that haven’t moved the needle on fighting obesity and remain committed to unhealthy menus tend to overshadow the good steps the industry has taken.

Jim Doak, executive chef and director of menu development at Wisconsin-based burger concept Culver’s, says cleaning up the quick-serve industry’s name starts with consumers understanding the role its food plays in their weekly diets. For example, he says, an occasional Culver’s single Butter Burger paired with a side salad and tea fits nicely into a regular diet.

“It’s easy to point fingers, but it’s hard to understand everything that we’re doing. I think the fact that this is a problem that evolved over a long period of time—the obesity problem—it’s not something that’s going to get fixed overnight if we just stop serving gigantic drinks or start mandating calories on menus,” Doak says. “It’s going to take time to unwind this problem. But I think the thing you’ll see is that as an industry, we’re all dedicated to providing the guests with the information they need to make their decision and to empower them to make good choices.”

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