Subliminal Suicide

by Robin DePalma

English I

Obesity in our society has become an epidemic in need of a long-term cure.  In his essay “Don’t Blame the Eater,” David Zincenko contemplates the cause of obesity as he weighs in on the timeless debate between personal versus societal responsibility.  The author, who has ultimately taken full responsibility for his own health, also offers sympathy for those who feel trapped by their economic circumstances.  He focuses on the fast food industry.  Drive-through restaurants have fed generations of children and adults, all of whom lack the information they need to make smarter choices. Zincenko states, “Advertisements don’t carry warning labels the way tobacco ads do.  Prepared foods aren’t covered under Food and Drug Administration labeling laws” (196). I agree in large measure with Zincenko’s position and will offer my own perspective as a mother and a future healthcare professional.  I am confident we can begin to treat this epidemic and cure what ails our collective diets through a combination of personal and societal education and responsibility.

As the issue is twofold, so I propose is the solution.  We need to consider that there is a distinct difference between the effects of fast food among diverse groups in our society.  The population Zincenko is primarily referring to in “Don’t Blame the Eater” is a socio-economic segment of our population that relies on low-cost, filling and fast food options to feed their families affordably. They feel the greatest frustration as their resources are limited.  Zinczenko asserts, “I tend to sympathize with these portly fast-food patrons, though.  Maybe that’s because I used to be one of them” (195).  The author was a latchkey kid from a broken family.  His mother had to work very hard and long hours to meet monthly expenses, and she was not at home to prepare nutritious meals for her son.  Zinczenko was, therefore, a teenager on his own at mealtime with little money.  This dilemma left him vulnerable to the quick and affordable option of fast food. The author explains his limited choices: “Then as now, these were the only available options – for an American kid to get an affordable meal” (195).  Zinczenko was eventually afforded the tools to achieve a healthy lifestyle while attending college and then joining the Navy Reserves. He became involved with a health magazine and learned how to manage his diet.  However, the author also adds:  “But most of the teenagers who live, as I once did, on a fast-food diet won’t turn their lives around.  They’ve crossed under the golden arches to a likely fate of lifetime obesity.  And the problem isn’t just theirs - - It’s all of ours” (196). The author’s experience calls into question the widely accepted theory that once poor eating habits are formed and people are addicted to fats and sugar, it is difficult to overcome that addiction and form healthier eating habits.

Zinczenko believes that fast food companies are targeting their advertising towards our children, that their products have proven health threats, and that these products should display warning labels.  The author points out, “They would do well to protect themselves, and their customers, by providing the nutrition information people need to make informed choices about their products.  Without such warnings, we’ll see more sick, obese children and more angry, litigious parents.  I say, let the deep-fried chips fall where they may” (197).  I strongly agree with Zinczenko”s serious concerns and decided to do some personal research by crossing under the ‘golden arches’ myself in the hopes of seeing nutrition facts on display.  I discovered that these facts are not openly displayed; however they can be acquired upon request.  Americans are considered quick to enter into lawsuits; therefore the fast food companies should be protecting themselves from lawsuits or they may be frying their profits as well as their reputations.

According to the American Psychological Association, “today’s children, ages 8 to 18, consume multiple types of media (often simultaneously) and spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping.  Research has found strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity.”  Our lives are very busy and I can understand how this can happen, but we simply must find another way to entertain our children.  Advertising for food and beverages that is targeted towards our children can influence their product preferences and, therefore, affect their diets. Obesity has been shown to increase in children in accordance with how much television they watch. The APA states:

Food ads on television make up 50% of all the ad time on children’s shows. These ads are almost completely dominated by unhealthy food products (34% for candy and snacks, 28% for cereal, 10% for fast food, 4% for dairy products, 1% for fruit juices, and 0% for fruits and vegetables).  Our children are exposed to staggering 4,000-6,000 ads per year.   Children are rarely exposed to public service announcements or advertising for healthier foods (American Psychological Association).

            While I am very alarmed by these statistics, I do believe that Americans are vulnerable to this fast food industry, as they have very little time and perhaps, very little money.  The fast food industry is aware of this and satisfies our needs. In Morgan Spurlock’s book that is actually titled, “Don’t Eat This Book,” he writes:     

We’ve added so much weight in the last couple of decades that even the airline industry has to struggle to haul us around.  In November 2004, the Associated Press reported:  America’s growing waistlines are hurting the bottom lines of airline companies as the extra pounds on passengers are causing a drag on planes.  Heavier fliers have created heftier fuel costs, according to [a] government study (9-10).

             This information is astounding and we simply must find a solution for the obesity problem.   Perhaps books like Spurlock’s should be assigned reading as part of our schools’ curriculum.  Spurlock also states, “Obviously, lower income folks don’t have the access to health education and information that people of higher incomes do, just as a matter of course” (12). This is a very unfortunate, but real situation.  The author asserts: “There are far fewer supermarkets in low-income urban neighborhoods than in better-off suburbs…What the lower-income neighborhoods do have is an overabundance of fast-food joints, bad takeout and small corner grocery stores stocked with nothing good” (12).  What are these people supposed to do?   Many may not even own a car to travel to a larger grocery store.  Some products have even been developed to accommodate more portly patrons, as Spurlock points out:  “So many of us are obese that we’ve created a market for a whole industry supplying us with extra-large and reinforced car seats, giant chairs, super heavy-duty bathroom scales, ‘toilets rated to 1,500 pounds, beds built to hold 1100 pounds, even something called a ‘trapeze’ that helps people who weigh l000 pounds turn over in bed’” (10). We seem to be enabling this obesity crisis instead of addressing it head on, and if we don’t do something about it soon, the facilitation of corpulence will only continue. In the article “Supersizing America:  Fatness and Post-911 Cultural Anxieties,” Courtney Bailey states that at the 2004 summit on obesity sponsored by Time and ABC News, US Surgeon General Richard Carmona made the following observation:

As we look to the future and where childhood obesity will be in 20 years…it is every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today.  It is the threat from within… it nonetheless suggests that similar anxieties underline both the “war on obesity” and the “war on terrorism”.  The film Super-Size Me, also released in 2004, provides a particularly interesting articulation of these anxieties, which revolve around American expansion and American vulnerability in a post-911 world.  Super-Size Me follows filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s month-long experiment in fast food consumption and charts the gradual deterioration of his physical health.

                This information confirms my fear even more.  I believe our nation is at war with obesity.  Another article titled “Proximity of Fast-Food Restaurants to Schools and Adolescent Obesity” found a correlation between the location of fast food restaurants and obesity:

We have examined the relationship between fast-food restaurants near schools and obesity among middle and high school students in California.  We used geocoded data [that was] obtained from the 2002-2005 California Healthy Kids Survey on over 500,000 youths and multivariate regression models to estimate associations between adolescent obesity and proximity of fast-food restaurants to schools.  We found that students with fast-food restaurants within one half mile of their schools consumed fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, consumed more servings of soda, and were more likely to be overweight or obese than were youths whose schools were not near fast-food restaurants. […]  Exposure to poor-quality food environments has important effects on adolescent eating patterns and overweight.  Policy interventions limiting the proximity of fast-food restaurants to schools could help reduce adolescent obesity (Carpenter).

           The CBS news story, “Happy Meal Ban in San Francisco,” reports on San Francisco’s attempts to get kids off fast food:

If Ronald McDonald is looking a bit glum these days, there’s a reason: They’ve banned the Happy Meal in San Francisco.  Actually, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban restaurants from handing out toys with meals that fail to meet basic nutritional standards for fat calories, and sodium.  That would include the Happy Meal, which has been a fat-packed fave of hungry children for decades.  […] “Our children are sick,” Supervisor Eric Mar, who sponsored the measure, told Reuters.  “Rates of obesity in San Francisco are distributing high especially among children of color.  This is a challenge to the restaurant industry to think about children’s health first and join the wide range of local restaurants that have already made this commitment.”  Under the ban – scheduled to take effect December 2011 – restaurants in the Golden Gate City would be allowed to distribute toys with meals only if they contained fewer than 600 calories and less than 640 mg of sodium, according to Canadian broadcaster CTV.  In addition, less than 35 percent of calories in the meals could come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat.

            Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this “wide range commitment” (Freeman) would spread throughout our nation?

           While I do not consume fast food anymore, I did give in to this unhealthy lifestyle when my children were younger.  They wanted the happy meal and the well-advertised toy inside.  They attended numerous birthday parties at McDonalds and I sat idly by whilst they were consuming frightening levels of sugar, sodium, and fats while they were, ironically, celebrating the life of a friend.  I made a conscious decision to focus on healthier eating styles for my family, believing that once eating habits are formed, they are difficult to change.   I began strongly encouraging them to eat their salad or any other vegetables being served before they ate anything else on their plate. They eventually became accustomed to this style of eating and have grown into very healthy eaters who, while even at college, do actually hit the salad bar first. 

Works Cited

American Psychological Association. "The Impact of Food Advertising on Childhood Obesiety." 2009. American Psychological Association. APA. 2010.

Bailey, Courtney. "Supersizing America: Fatness and Post-911 Cultural Anxieties." Wiley Periodicals, Inc. (2010): 441.

Carpenter, Christopher and Brennan Davis. "Proximity of Fast-Food Restaurants to Schools and Adolescent Obesity." American Journal of Public Health (2009): 505-510.

Freeman, David W. "Happy Meal Ban in San Francisco." 4 November 2010. CBS News. 2010.

Spurlock, Morgan. Don't Eat This Book. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005.

Zinczenko, David. "Don't Blame the Eater." Birkenstein, Cathy and Gerald Graff. They Say, I Say. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. 195-197.


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