Fast food is certainly convenient. Large chains have perfected the art of taking an order, serving you and finishing the billing in an amazingly short period of time. When in a hurry, one can eat a meal in a few minutes and get right back to work. Alternatively, those with time can linger over a coffee or a cold beverage for extended lengths of time. No wonder that fast food establishments mushroom all over the world. Because they’re standardised, they usually provide a reasonably sanitary atmosphere with hygienic food and often good toilet facilities. And if not in India, they are relatively cheap abroad.
Which brings us to the nutritional value of the food they serve. Fast food franchises have been at the receiving end of sustained criticism by various consumer groups. The most commonly levelled allegation is that according to the Massachusetts’ Medical Society there is a direct relationship between fast food and weight gain. My assessment is that the problem is not really the total fat content of the food they serve, but the high trans-fat levels which are known to be harmful.
Experiment with monkeys also tells us that fast food containing trans-fats are responsible for abdominal fat and insulin resistance. Such evidence suggests that in humans this may raise the metabolic syndrome–the group of risk factors that raises your risk for heart disease–a combination of excessive belly fat, diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood triglycerides. Monkeys fed with trans-fats gained 7.2 per cent of their body weight compared to the control group who were fed unsaturated fat and whose weight increased by a relatively modest 1.8 per cent.
The US Department of Agriculture in a recently concluded study that mapped food consumption trends, said that consumption of fast food has increased from 3 per cent of total calories to 12 per cent. More worryingly, statistics from a few years ago tell us that one-third of children in the US between the ages of 4 and 19 eat fast food on a daily basis, which is likely to cause an average weight gain of 6 lbs a year.
Another cited concern is that fast food is usually served in wrappers that are chemically treated to repel oil and grease, and these chemicals lat er show up in the human body’s digestive system as polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters, known to be detrimental to human health. These chemicals, says a recent US study, are believed to disrupt hormones and possibly cause cancer. Phthalates are also used in packaging to make plastics more flexible. Eating or drinking food in such plastics containers can be hazardous to your health–they have been shown to interfere with hormones as well. Phthalates in the EU are regulated in the food by estimation of levels and aren’t permissible at the point where they can be harmful to humans. Strangely, that does not happen in the US.
Fast foods are high in salt, cholesterol and contain very little fibre or vitamins, known to be essential for a balanced diet. Several medical conditions are said to be associated with eating fast food–in a non-comprehensive list, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer.Some studies suggest asthma and high blood pressure may also be associated. Before laying the blame on fast food, I must admit that there isn’t properly substantiated evidence.
A middle-aged janitor in the US, a 56-year-old diabetic, regularly ate at fast food chains. After two heart attacks he sued the franchises for his health problems. This cannot logically be the cause-and-effect answer – it’s a little like suing alcohol companies for liver damage or the car industry for accidents. One must take decisions for consumption in a responsible way–the sheer availability of a given thing cannot indemnify an individual for making unsafe choices.
What then should be our approach to fast food? The clear answer is, however great the temptation, it cannot be the substitute for a regular meal. I have known parents who reward children with a trip to the fast food outlet, giving the child an impression that this is a treat–this can inculcate a behavioural pattern that will lead the child to repeat-eat at such outlets.
Increased taxation is one of the approaches that certain governments follow, on the same basis as taxing tobacco, to curb the excessive intake of such food. An article about the impact of advertising on childhood obesity informs us that research links strong association between advertising for junk foods and rate of childhood obesity.Such obesity taxes the health of the country.Mouthwatering as those burgers and fries may look, it is up to the parents to make sure children don’t get hooked.
In conclusion, as the wise doctor always tells his patient – anything in moderation.