October 3, 2023

Fast Food Continues 30-Year Decline in Nutritional Value

Author: The Great Courses Staff
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By The Great Courses Staff

Fast food has only worsened our health since 1986 despite healthier menu options. An article published on the popular health website Medical News Today reports that larger portion sizes and higher sodium content have plagued fast food in recent decades. How does this relate to the obesity epidemic?

Fast food platter on red background with sauce, chicken nuggets, french fries, soda, and a burger

The Medical News Today article cites a new study of fast food in 1986, 1991, and 2016. The Boston University-based study, which first appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, analyzed top fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and KFC. The results showed that since 1986, desserts and entrees have increased on average by 62 kilocalories and 30 kilocalories per decade, respectively. These amounts reflect the increase in portion sizes and higher concentration of sodium in average fast food items. However, the history of the obesity epidemic begins much further back than you’d expect.

The 100-Year Road to Modern Fast Food

Henry Ford catalyzed the affordability of automobiles when he pioneered the assembly line. “The Model T was the very first affordable car, meaning that cars went from status symbols and playthings for the rich to a reasonably affordable mode of transportation,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The rise of the automobile coincided with a decline in railway travel, which meant a greater demand for cars and the fuel to power them.”

Cars became so popular that President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped pass the Interstate Highways Act, adding 42,000 miles of highway to America in the mid-1950s. Interstates and commuter neighborhoods led to suburbs and a surge in fast-food chains. Fast-food chains pride themselves on consistency, so commuters often frequent them to taste the comfort and familiarity of home. It’s also worth noting that Ray Kroc, the business mogul behind McDonald’s, used Henry Ford’s assembly line formula to expedite food service in his chain of restaurants.

Other Modern Detriments to a Healthy Weight

Illustration displaying average american screen time per day

“It’s estimated these days that the average American spends a whopping eight and a half hours a day in front of some type of screen,” Dr. Crittenden said. “Participation in community sports has also declined over the decades. The Society for Human Resource Management generated estimates that suggest that only about 12 percent of U.S. organizations currently sponsor a company athletic team, and this is down from almost 30 percent less than a decade ago.”

Modern conveniences like online shopping and grocery delivery also contribute to our limited physical exercise. New companies like GrubHub and DoorDash now offer fast-food delivery, eliminating even the minimal exertion of walking to our cars to drive to a restaurant. Furthermore, screen time and obesity rates for children have skyrocketed, adding yet another layer of complexity to solving our problems of being overweight.

Solving the obesity crisis requires many actions. The increase of portion sizes and sodium and caloric intake discovered by the new Boston University study suggests that portion control can help a great deal. Dr. Crittenden’s observations about our increasingly sedentary lifestyles also offer valuable insight. In the meantime, we can only compare our histories of fast food and physical activity with today and try to find solutions that work for us individually.

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.

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