Natural Foods Merchandiser

Why Are We Fat? It's Any Researcher's Guess

With the McDonald's lawsuit generating almost daily headlines, Americans are gobbling up any and all research that might help explain why we've become so fat, so fast.

This demand is met with adequate supply. From the World Health Organization to Columbia University, researchers suggest that obesity can be triggered by anything from eating oversized portions, to drinking too much soda pop, to living next door to a fast-food joint.

Surely this means you can find scientific evidence that super-sized hamburgers served with sugary sodas and fries will make you fat? But the maddening thing about the collision of the world of science with the real world is that nothing is for sure.

The latest report WHO co-authored with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, titled Expert Report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, leaked to the press and due out in late February, investigates the connection between sweet drinks—including sodas and fruit juices—and unhealthy weight gain. The report suggests that eating habits, such as kids consuming 200 liters of pop a year, contribute to obesity.

And what of the thesis that eating too often at McDonald's will make you fat, the underpinning of the failed class action lawsuit? Columbia University professor Michael Grossman, who says he doesn't eat at McDonald's anymore, has written a number of papers exploring obesity and the proliferation of fast-food restaurants in major cities. Between 1984 and 1999, Grossman found that as more of these restaurants opened in major cities, more obese people were statistically detected in those areas.

However, there were other factors that could have contributed to the issue. During the same period, the anti-smoking campaign was at its height, and since people who quit smoking gain weight, that was a factor, Grossman concluded. Add in more desk jobs and working women who have no time to cook, and cause and effect factors start shifting.

Still, Grossman said, "I certainly won't leap to concluding my research justifies a lawsuit against McDonald's."

In the end, researchers who have studied obesity for years say staying fit is a personal responsibility that is rooted as much in knowing your foods as in common sense.

"There is really no reason for anybody to have a bottle of soda in their refrigerator," said Amy Lanou, Ph.D., whose dissertation attempted to address causes of obesity. Lanou is director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's nutrition department.

She argues that drinking soda as a treat while at a ball game is all the carbonated beverage consumption one might need. But start every morning with a bottle of soda and make hamburgers your main fare, and you surely will become fat, Lanou said.

At the end of the day, a person needs to understand how the intake of each type of food affects his or her metabolism and adjust the diet accordingly, she said.

Max Smetannikov is a Washington D.C.-based writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 24

Fat Suit Kicked

While scientific evidence suggests a link between fast food and obesity in the United States, a class-action lawsuit singling out McDonald's Corp. for responsibility for the nation's XXXL problem went nowhere.

On Jan. 22, New York judge Robert Sweet dismissed the suit, filed against two McDonald's restaurants in Bronx, N.Y., on behalf of several children who claimed they became overweight after getting hooked on the fast-food chains' large-portion value meals. The suit alleged that McDonald's food is so unhealthy and addictive that it should be regulated by the government—as are cigarettes and alcohol.

The plaintiffs' attorney Samuel Hirsch told newspapers he expected to file an amended complaint within 30 days of the decision.

In his ruling, Sweet wrote that the plaintiffs failed to prove McDonald's advertising misrepresented the health impacts of its menu. Nor did the suit support claims that McDonald's was negligent, since its food was not unhealthy enough to be outside of reasonable expectations of consumers. He also ruled that the evidence that fast food is addictive is not conclusive, and wrote there is no evidence that McDonald's had knowingly increased addictive elements in its food to hook people on it.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 24

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