Americans have gained weight over the course of the last century. This increase stems from a variety of factors, primarily more consumption of calories and less vigorous activity. From a historical perspective, a rising caloric intake was a positive event for the first half of the twentieth century. Though the fast-food industry has proliferated since the 1960s, there is little conclusive evidence that it is a primary cause of obesity. Further, this study finds that fast food has worked as a force to lower the cost of protein for consumers at all income levels.
Lawsuits against fast-food companies miss the mark from a nutritional, economic, and legal perspective; they ignore the fundamental issue of personal choice and responsibility. The overweight baseball fan jumps to his feet in the bleachers of Wrigley Field, screaming for the Chicago Cubs to hold onto their 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. He squeezes a Cubs pennant in his left hand while shoving a mustard-smeared hot dog into his mouth with the right. The Dodgers have a runner on first who is sneaking a big lead off the base.
The Cubs’ pitcher has thrown three balls and two strikes to the batter, a notorious power hitter. The obese fan holds his breath, while the pitcher winds up and fires a blazing fastball. “Crack! ” The ball flies over the fan’s head into the bleachers for a game-winning home run. The fan slumps to his bleacher seat and has a heart attack. Who should the fan sue? (a) The Cubs for breaking his heart? (b) The hot dog company for making a fatty food? (c) The hot dog vendor for selling him a fatty food? (d) All of the above? A few years ago these questions might have seemed preposterous.
But now scenes better suited for the absurd stories of Kafka snake their way into serious courtroom encounters. While no federal court has yet heard a case on behalf of sulking baseball fans, just a few months ago, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York responded to a complaint filed against McDonald’s by a class of obese customers, alleging among other things that the company acted negligently in selling foods that were high in cholesterol, fat, salt, and sugar. (1) In the past ten years, we have seen an outburst of class action lawsuits that alleged harm to buyers.
With classes numbering in the thousands, these suits may bring great riches to tort lawyers, even if they provide little relief to the plaintiffs. The sheer size of the claims and the number of claimants often intimidate defending firms, which fear that their reputations will be tarnished in the media and their stock prices will be punished–not because of the merits of the case but from the ensuing publicity.
In his opinion in the McDonald’s case, Judge Robert W. Sweet suggested that the McDonald’s suit could “spawn thousands of similar ‘McLawsuits’ against restaurants. Sure enough, a few days ago, hungry lawyers gathered in Boston to plot their strategy for future obesity litigation, convening panels with titles such as “Food Marketing and Supersized Americans. ” (2) Recent books with titles such as Fat Land and Fast Food Nation promote the view that fast-food firms are harming our health and turning us into a people who are forced to shop in the “big and tall” section of the clothing stores. (3) The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “big and tall” has become a $6 billion business in menswear, “representing more than a 10 percent share of the total men’s market. 4) While it may be easy for critics to accuse fast-food restaurants of serving fattening foods, this study analyzes the issues on several levels.
First, this study examines why fast-food companies suddenly find themselves under legal attack. Second, this study finds that fast-food restaurants are not a chief explanation for rising obesity levels in the United States. Third, this study suggests that the spread of fast-food restaurants has actually helped to push down the cost of protein, a key building block to good physical health.
Fast-food restaurants provide a very economical source of protein and calories (even though they may also be providing cheap sources of fat as well. ) Fourth, this study explains how changing and contradictory nutritional recommendations make the courtroom a particularly poor place to determine what and where people should eat. The study does not conclude that you should stuff yourself with french fries or that you should get your children hooked on a daily “Happy Meal. ” But it does argue for more facts, more careful consideration–and less litigation.
Fast-food restaurants (5) have exploded in popularity since World War II. More cars, more suburbs, and more roads have made roadside eating more convenient. During the 1950s, drive-through and drive-in burger, ice cream, and pizza joints catered to a mobile population. McDonald’s, which specialized in roadside restaurants, eclipsed White Castle hamburger stands in the 1960s because the latter had focused more on urban, walk-up customers. (6) The McDonald’s road signs in the early 1960s boasted of serving a million hamburgers; now McDonald’s claims to have sold over 99 billion burgers.
The “zeros” in 100 billion will not fit on the firm’s tote-board signs when the 100 billionth burger is sold. And yet despite the popularity of such fast-food firms as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway, etc. –at which American consumers voluntarily spend over $100 billion annually–it has become quite fashionable to denounce these restaurants for a variety of reasons. “They make people fat. ” “They hypnotize the kids. ” “They bribe the kids with toys. ” “They destroy our taste for more sophisticated foods.
These condemnations often come from highbrow sources claiming that customers of fast food are too ignorant or too blinded to understand what they are putting in their own mouths. But the onslaught of criticism is not even limited to the food. Animal rights activists condemn fast food for animal cruelty. Environmentalists allege that fast food produces too much “McLitter. ” Orthodox organic food fans accuse fast-food firms of using genetically modified ingredients, which they call “frankenfoods. ” In Europe, anti-globalization protestors allege that fast food homogenizes culture and spreads capitalism far and wide.
French kids are eating fries instead of foie gras. Sacre bleu! With the fury directed at fast-food firms, it is no surprise that tort lawyers have jumped into the fray. Tort lawyers around the country settled the $246 billion tobacco case in 1998. Those who have not retired on their stake from that settlement are wondering whether fast food could be the “next tobacco,” along with HMOs and lead paint. After all, the Surgeon General estimates that obesity creates about $117 billion in annual healthcare costs. (7) There are differences, of course. No one, so far, has shown that cheeseburgers are chemically addictive.
Furthermore, most fast-food restaurants freely distribute their nutritional content and offer a variety of meals, some high in fat, some not. Nor is it clear that the average fast-food meal is significantly less nutritious than the average restaurant meal, or even the average home meal. The iconic 1943 Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting (“Freedom from Want”) highlights a plump turkey, which is high in protein. But surely the proud hostess has also prepared gravy, stuffing, and a rich pie for dessert, which though undoubtedly tasty, would not win a round of applause from nutritionists.
The key similarity, though, between the tobacco lawsuits and claims against the fast-food industry is this: both industries have deep pockets and millions of customers who could join as potential plaintiffs. Therefore, lawyers have enormous incentives to squeeze food complaints into the nation’s courtrooms. They will not disappoint in their eagerness to pursue this.
If you believe the old saying, “you are what you eat,” human beings are not what they used to be. Before jumping into today’s fashionable condemnation of calories, let us spend a moment on a historical perspective and at least admit that for mankind’s first couple of hundred thousand years of existence, the basic human problem was how to get enough calories and micronutrients. Forget the caveman era, just one hundred years ago most people were not getting adequate nutrition. Malnutrition was rampant, stunting growth, hindering central nervous systems, and making people more susceptible to diseases.
Often, poor people begged on the streets because hey did not have the sheer physical energy to work at a job, even if work was available to them. By modern standards even affluent people a century ago were too small, too thin, and too feeble. (8) A century ago, an American with some spare time and spare change was more likely to sign up for a weight-gaining class than a weight-loss program. Just as life expectancy in the United States rose almost steadily from about 47 years in 1900 to 80 years today, so too has the “Body Mass Index” or BMI, a ratio of height to weight. (The BMI is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared.
A person five feet five inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, would have a BMI of 25. A taller person, for example, six feet tall could weigh 184 and have a BMI of 25, too. ) In the late nineteenth century most people died too soon and were, simply put, too skinny. The two are related, of course. For most of human history only the wealthy were plump; paintings of patrons by Peter Paul Rubens illustrated that relationship. In ancient times figurines of Venus (carved thousands of years ago) display chunky thighs, fulsome bellies and BMIs far above today’s obesity levels.
Likewise, skinny people looked suspicious to the ancients. Remember, that the backstabbing Cassius had a “lean and hungry look. ” The rise in the BMI from the nineteenth century to about 1960 should be counted as one of the great social and medical victories of modern times. In a sense, it created a more equal social status, as well as a more equal physical stature.
So what went wrong more recently? It is not the case that the average BMI has suddenly accelerated. In fact, BMI has been rising fairly steadily for the last 120 years. Nonetheless, since the 1960s, the higher BMI scores have surpassed the optimal zone of about 20-25. (9) No doubt, a more sedentary lifestyle adds to this concern. (In contrast, the healthy rise in BMIs during the early 1900s might be attributed to gaining more muscle, which weighs more than fat. ) The post-1960s rise in BMI scores is similar to a tree that grows 12 inches per year, but in its tenth year starts casting an unwanted shadow on your patio.
In the case of people, more mass from fat has diminishing returns, cutting down their life spans and raising the risk for diabetes, heart disease, gallbladder disease, and even cancer. Over half of American adults are overweight, and nearly one quarter actually qualify as obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. Should we chiefly blame fast-food firms for BMIs over 25? According to the caricature described by lawyers suing fast-food companies, poor, ill-educated people are duped by duplicitous fast-food franchises into biting into greasy hamburgers and french fries.
The data tell us that this theory is wrong. If the “blame fast food” hypothesis were right, we would see a faster pace of BMI growth among poorly educated people, who might not be able to read or understand nutritional labels. In fact, college educated, not poorly educated people accounted for the most rapid growth in BMI scores between the 1970s and the 1990s–though poorly educated people still have a higher overall incidence of obesity. The percentage of obese college-educated women nearly tripled between the early 1970s and the early 1990s.
In comparison, the proportion of obese women without high school degrees rose by 58 percent. Among men, the results were similar. Obesity among those without high school degrees climbed by about 53 percent. But obesity among college graduates jumped by 163 percent. (10) If the “blame fast food” hypothesis made sense, these data would be flipped upside down. Of course, we cannot deny that people are eating more and getting bigger. But that does not prove that fast-food franchises are the culprit. On average, Americans are eating about 200 calories more each day than they did in the 1970s.
An additional 200 calories can be guzzled in a glass of milk, a soda, or gobbled in a bowl of cereal, for example. Fast-food critics eagerly pounce and allege that the additional calories come from super-sized meals of pizza, burgers, or burritos. It is true that between the 1970s and the 1990s, daily fast-food intake grew from an average of 60 calories to 200 calories. But simply quoting that data misleads. Though Americans have been consuming somewhat more fast food at mealtime, they have reduced their home consumption at mealtime.
Americans have cut back their home meals by about 228 calories for men and 177 for women, offsetting the rise in fast food calories. (11) In total, mealtime calories have not budged much, and mealtimes are when consumers generally visit fast-food restaurants. So where are the 200 additional calories coming from? The US Department of Agriculture has compiled the “Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals,” which collects information on where a food was purchased, how it was prepared, and where it was eaten, in addition to demographic information, such as race, ncome, age, and sex.
The Survey shows us that Americans are not eating bigger breakfasts, lunches, or dinners. But they are noshing and nibbling like never before. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, men and women essentially doubled the calories consumed between meals (by between 160 and 240 calories). In 1987-1988, Americans typically snacked less than once a day; by 1994 they were snacking 1. 6 times per day. But surely, the fast-food critics would argue, those fast-food cookies and pre-wrapped apple pies must account for calories. Again the data fails to make their case.
Women ate only about six more snack calories at fast-food restaurants, while men ate eight more snack calories over the past two decades. That is roughly equal to one cracker or a few raisins. Where do Americans eat their between-meal calories? Mostly at home. Kitchen cabinets can be deadly to diets. And in a fairly recent development, supermarket shoppers are pulling goodies off of store shelves and ripping into them at the stores before they can even drive home. Consumers eat two to three times more goodies inside stores than at fast-food restaurants? (12) Why are people eating more and growing larger?
For one thing, food is cheaper. From a historical point of view that is a very good thing. A smaller portion of today’s family budget goes to food than at anytime during the twentieth century. In 1929, families spent 23. 5 percent of their incomes on food. In 1961, they spent 17 percent. By 2001, American families spent just 10 percent of their incomes on food. (13) The lower relative cost of food made it easier, of course, for people to consume more. Since the mid-1980s we have seen an interesting change in restaurant pricing, which has made restaurants more attractive to consumers.
Compared to supermarket prices, restaurant prices have actually fallen since 1986. Whereas a restaurant meal was 1. 82 times the cost of a store-bought meal in 1986, by 2001 a restaurant meal cost just 1. 73 times as much. (14) Higher incomes and lower relative restaurant prices have induced people to eat more and to eat more away from home. Despite the attraction of restaurant eating and the proliferation of sit-down chain restaurants such as the Olive Garden, TGI Friday’s, P. F. Chang’s, etc, Americans still consume about two thirds of their calories at home.
Critics of fast food spend little time comparing fast-food meals to meals eaten at home, at schools, or at sit-down restaurants. The nature of the American workplace may also be contributing to higher caloric intake. Whether people dine while sitting down at a table or while standing at a fast-food counter, at the workplace they are literally sitting down on the job more than they did during prior eras. More sedentary desk jobs probably contribute to wider bottoms. Consider two middle-income jobs, one in 1953 and one in 2003.
In 1953, a dockworker lifts 50 boxes off of a minicrane and places it on a hand truck, which the dockworker pulls to a warehouse. In 2003, a person earning a similar income would be sitting in front of a computer, inputting data, and matching orders with deliveries. What’s the key difference? Until recently, employers paid employees to exert energy and burn calories. In contrast, employers pay workers to stay in their seats. For many, the most vigorous exercise comes from tearing off a sheet of paper from a printer or walking to the refrigerator.
Furthermore, I would suggest that the decline in factory work–with its fixed lunch and coffee break schedule–enables people to eat more often. Less factory work means less foremen supervision. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, manufacturing employment fell from about 24. 4 percent of civilian employment in 1970 to merely 13 percent in 2000. A woman who spends her career sitting at a desk may “end up with as much as 3. 3 units of BMI more than someone with a highly active job. (15) A person telecommuting from home may be sitting even closer to the refrigerator or cupboard.
In 1970, the term “telecommuting” did not even exist. By 2000, however, with advances in computers and remote access technology, approximately 12 percent of the workforce worked from home at least part of the week. This figure does not include over 25 million home-based businesses. (16) Casual observation implies that many telecommuters take breaks from their home-work at coffee shops and other sellers of baked goods. Finally, some analysts argue that over the past three decades the national anti-smoking campaign has driven up cigarette prices and led smokers to switch from nicotine to calories.