Bill Burton on the Bay

Vol. 9, No. 7
Feb. 15-21, 2001
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Eating Our Way to the Grave

Fast foods, methinks, are as good as smoking in doing us in.

Nobody in the United States is being forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is the easiest: Stop buying it.

–Eric Schlosser: Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Okay, call this writer a spoilsport; he's against everything that's good: Cell phone use while driving on the highway, public funding of stadiums for privately owned sports organizations so citizens can have a team to root for, big gas guzzling SUVs whose appetites drive up fuel prices and deplete reserves - and now, to top it all, he's taking a crack at the favorite stop for hungry Americans on the run.

Fast food joints. We won't go into any names, but we all know them. Among many, their logos are more quickly identified than the Presidential Seal, even the skull and crossbones on a container of poison, which in a roundabout way might be appropriate for some of the super popular items dished out at drive-through windows or inside these eateries.

We patronize fast food outlets to the tune of $110 billion a year, Consumer Reports tells us in its March issue, which coincidentally came out at about the same time as Eric Schlosser's new book, which has been getting a lot of press lately.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal published by Houghton Mifflin (356 pages, $25) should be a must read for all busy Americans who hold convenience and taste above health and longevity. Probably it won't save many lives or hospital bills. You know how we Americans are: If it's good - even though not so good for us - we'll quit tomorrow. And, of course, tomorrow never comes.

It's like smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, gobbling down sweet and rich desserts, including the latest super ice creams. If we are what we put in our mouths, we're in for some pretty stiff paybacks somewhere down the road.

Paybacks Are Hell

That down-the-road tomorrow will come - and let's face it, with some there might not be many days after that tomorrow. Think I'm laying it on a bit thick? I considered that possibility, so I took the question to my fishing friend Stanley, a prominent vascular surgeon who practices at one of the best hospitals in the world.

"Stanley," said I, "I've been thinking about all the hullabaloo about smoking, all the new laws, the warnings by the Surgeon General, the tobacco settlements and such. I know they're right, and the same with excessive alcohol consumption, but I have a gut feeling that a steady diet of fatty and salt-saturated fast foods will eventually kill or incapacitate as many Americans as cigarettes or booze - if it isn't already.

"Is that a valid suggestion?" I asked, curious why we hear no public outcry about French fries, greasy burgers, fried chicken, buffalo wings, elaborate pizzas and the likes all loaded with fat and salt, both known to be at the top of health hazards ingested in the feeding frenzy of Americans young and old.

Stanley, who has checked out more human arteries than those of the traffic kind on a U.S. highway map, mulled the question a few moments. He didn't want to commit himself directly, and said there were too many factors to consider, so many studies to evaluate, and he didn't want to give the impression that smoking wasn't among the most evil of evils.

But, yes, he finally said, a steady and excessive diet of fatty fast foods might possibly pose as much of a health risk as smoking. "Might," he stressed, then fingered me: "But don't get any impression that smoking isn't about the worst thing you can do if you want to fish for a long time to come."

Living Clean is Hard

Stanley neither smokes nor patronizes fast food establishments. Like I said, he has seen an awful lot of arteries clogged, brittle and otherwise impacted by ingesting nicotine and fatty foods, not to mention smokers and diners with high blood pressure, deteriorating lungs and such.

He practices what he preaches, and though only about a decade younger than me, he plays vigorously in squash tournaments and walks around about as fast as I jog. Good for him; I envy his willpower and his common sense, which I share with him insofar as fast food offerings are concerned - though certainly not about the coarse tobacco that goes into my pipes of briar and meerschaum.

I only wish that when I was young the full consequences of smoking had been understood. Maybe I'd have never started - though no guarantees. Within young people is the glow of invulnerability, the it-can-never-happen-to-me attitude. It was that way when I was young, and is so today. Lighting up was and is the cool way to go.

So is fast food. But with smoking, there are warnings on every pack of tobacco, which might deter an occasional soul or two. And there are also some parents, teachers, coaches and friends to exert pressure to quit before getting hooked.

Take This as Fair Warning

Where are these same people when it comes to suggesting fast foods might not be the way to go? I'll tell you where they are. They're sitting in the booth munching crispy French fries or biting into a triple burger with cheese, maybe bacon added, also fatty mayonnaise or other sauces - and washing it all down with a sugar-laced soft drink bigger than a quart of milk.

One meal, and a whole day's recommended cap of fat, saturated and unsaturated - also sodium and sugar - is eclipsed. The biggest of the fast food chains, to its credit, introduced a truly lean burger some years back, but to its discredit dropped it just a few years later.

Parents who would blanch at offering their kids a puff from a cigarette, day after day treat the kids (and themselves) to fast foods loaded with fat and salt. I've even seen fast food outlets where once were traditional cafeterias in schools. The explanation was the students weren't eating the conventional foods - and it's better to eat fast food than nothing. I'm not convinced.

Not to defend smokers - they should know better - but why isn't there an outcry from the politicians, the medical profession and the do-gooders against constant diets of fast foods?

Not long ago, I was in Montgomery County's Friendship Heights, a suburb of Washington, where the county council approved a village statute banning smoking in all public places - including streets and sidewalks.

I looked down the street thereabouts, concrete in the heart of a community where - pending the outcome of a temporary restraining order - the toughest anti-smoking ordinance in the nation could be implemented. And what did I see? The big and well-lit logo of one of the world's top fast food joints atop a busy eatery.

This is not to suggest that the smoking ban is wrong. But I wonder how we get the message across to those who are doing their bodies nearly as much - if not more - harm by consuming steady diets of fast food as the smoker is by puffing away. A good start would be reading Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The All-American Meal or "Quick Bites" in the latest issue of Consumer Reports. Enough said...

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly