A fast food dilemma

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 11/22/2011, 4:55 a.m.

In recent decades, patterns of American food consumption have changed dramatically.  More meals are eaten outside the home and a larger portion of what people eat is unhealthy. While in 1970, money spent eating out accounted for just a quarter of all food dollars spent in the U.S., by 1999, eating out jumped to 47 percent of Americans’ food budget. Fast food has increasingly become a staple in the American diet — one third of youth between the ages of 2 and 17, and one quarter of adults eat fast food every day. Nationwide, there are five fast food restaurants for every grocery store.

In addition to fast food, junk food, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, consumption is on the rise. Today, American children consume at least 30 percent of their daily calories from junk food, with soft drinks alone comprising 10 percent. Teens drink an average of 21 ounces of soda each day, compared to the average five ounces they consumed three decades ago.

But this overabundance in low-income communities of color does more than just make bad foods easily accessible. Writing in The New York Times, food guru Mark Bittman cites a study that finds eating too much fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain. “In other words,” he writes, “the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.”

In his new book, “Eating Behavior and Obesity,” Shahram Heshmat, a professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield, cites research claiming that the chronic temptation of palatable foods creates feelings of hunger. Food swamps, therefore, make bad foods easily accessible and highly desirable.

The allure of fast food has been demonstrated in a new study released a few months ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It concludes, “Fast food consumption was related to fast food availability among low-income respondents, particularly within 1.00 to 2.99 km of the home among men.” The same study found no correlation between grocery store availability and fruit and vegetable consumption — meaning the pull of a fast food restaurant is stronger than that of a grocery store.

 The harmful and disparate effects of food swamps are not just outside — they are creeping inside the home as well.

According to a report released by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, black children see 56 percent more fast food advertisements than white children, and black teens see 46 percent more than white teens. A greater number of hours spent in front of a television accounts for some of the discrepancy in ad viewing between blacks and whites — but not all of it, since many ads are targeted specifically to African Americans, the study showed.

Black youth are not just seeing a greater number of fast food advertisements — they are also viewing more unhealthy foods. The report also calculated the number of calories depicted in each ad, and African American children ages 2-11 see 617 calories in each fast food ad, totaling 2,099 calories of fast food every day. White children in the same age group see significantly fewer calories in fast food advertising — 575 per ad and 1,160 each day.