Archive for fast food

Mission impossible: can middle- and working-class people eat healthy in America?

Fruits and Vegetables

I heard these are supposed to be good for you.

Lately I’ve adopted a new mission: eating better. This is easier said than done, of course, especially in my case.

I am (sadly) a very picky eater.

I have been since I was a kid. I’ve gotten better as the years have gone on but there are still many foods I find completely inedible.

In spite of this, I’ve pushed on, pouring through blogs in an effort to find new recipes to try.

The good news: I’ve found a few promising options.

The bad news: I’m remembering how difficult it is to find healthy foods on a budget.

For example: on one site I saw several recipes that used quinoa. I figured this would be something worth trying out. The worst possible outcome, I thought, would be if I just didn’t like it. No big deal.

During my next trip to the grocery, I stopped in the health food section and found what I was looking for.

Quinoa, cooked

Quinoa is pronounced KEEN-wah

It was eight dollars for a ten-ounce package.

Eight dollars.

Ten ounces.

I am a poor college student. I work within a limited budget. I can’t afford to spend eight dollars on a tiny box of food.

I suppose this might seem like a lot of outrage over a little matter. But this is indicative of a much larger pattern affecting millions of people.

There is a statistical relationship between poverty and obesity. According to the Food Research and Action Center, “wages were inversely related to BMI and obesity in a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 adults.” This means people with lower wages have higher BMIs and an increased chance of obesity.

This is odd, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it make sense for those with lower incomes to have lower BMIs?

Admittedly, the relationship between obesity and poverty is a little more complex and depends heavily on race, gender, and age. That being said, those with low wages are much more vulnerable to obesity.

Some of the reasons for this might be obvious. As I said before, healthy food often costs significantly more than junkier and processed foods with refined grains, added sugars, and fat.

Many people don’t even have access to groceries and farmers markets where they might buy healthy foods—or if they do, the food is of lower quality.

Lower-income neighborhoods often have an abundance of fast-food restaurants and a limited number of healthy options.  Many low-income families don’t have time to make a home-cooked, healthy meal. Instead they depend on the convenience and low cost of fast food.

Burger and friesWith all these factors working together, is it any wonder that obesity is such an epidemic in the United States?

As I said, I’m a poor college student, but I do all right. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from. So if it’s a struggle for someone like  me to buy healthy food, how hard is it for someone working two jobs? For someone with a family to support?

The sad truth is that as long as junk food is cheap and abundant compared to healthy food that is expensive and difficult to obtain, poor nutrition and obesity will continue to be prevalent. There has to be a fundamental change in the way things are.

—Lauren Bunch

Travel post #8: Dialing up healthy on the road

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This is the eighth in my series of short travel posts from the road as my husband and I drive from one side of the country to the other. See highlights from our trip here: Across the Great Divide.


Dave and I started the third leg of our cross-country trip this morning, which takes us from our home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to New York City.

This leg of the trip includes an intense amount of driving—14+ hours—over less than a day and a half. That means there won’t be many stops to see the sights or have fun; in fact, the only thing we’re looking forward to during the drive is hitting Chipotle, one of our favorite places to stop on the road for healthy, organic food, especially since we don’t yet have one in Bowling Green.

(WTF, Chipotle??? People in Bowling Green like burritos too!)

But the only reason we can find a Chipotle on the road is because we finally caved and bought an iPhone before we drove to the West coast earlier this summer.

Before that, we—like most Americans—were forced to eat at restaurants close enough to the highway that we could spot them from our car every time we went on a road trip.

In other words, we were forced to eat crap. 

And when I realized that, I realized that being able to locate a Chipotle—or any other healthy restaurant—with our iPhone when we travel is directly the result of us being able to afford the service plan for a smartphone. This is something we couldn’t have afforded a few years ago and something many Americans still cannot afford.

In other words, health is, yet again, tied to income.

This is another reason why the poorest people in America are becoming the fattest. We already know that working class folks have more trouble accessing healthy food for the following reasons:

1) They live in a rural or urban “food desert,” where healthy foods aren’t sold in any store near their homes (or at least not in a grocery store that’s not high-end and expensive).

2) Their town also doesn’t have any affordable healthy restaurants even though it may have plenty of fast food. (Laurinburg, North Carolina, I’m talking to you.)

3) They can’t afford healthy and organic foods, which are typically more expensive than non-organic items.

4) Their grocery stores offer deep discounts on processed foods—ramen noodles for a quarter, anyone?—but charge full price or more on whole foods and produce.

5) They work long hours or multiple jobs and, therefore, don’t have time to grocery shop or cook.

And now we can add one more reason to the list of reasons it’s hard for cash-strapped Americans to eat well:

6) They can’t afford a smart phone that would allow them to locate healthier options on the road.

Let’s face it—if you’re poor in this country, being healthy is pretty hard to do, which is why the obesity epidemic is hitting the poorest Americans in greater numbers than any other group.

No, if you want to be a healthy American who eats well, you need to have one thing: money. Money to spend on organic food, money to spend on whole foods, money for sit-down restaurants, money for housing in an urban center, and money for a smartphone service plan.

Otherwise, you’re just screwed.

Mad about lunch

Now that I’m not eating in front of the TV and the computer screen anymore, I’m more aware of how satisfying—physically and emotionally—it can be to sit and enjoy a meal without all those distractions.

And realizing this has made me also wonder about how we eat lunch in America.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that most people squeeze in lunch between other obligations—be they about work or family. I imagine that it’s not unusual for most Americans to eat either fast food or a frozen “dinner” for lunch. And I bet most of us do it either while working—often at a computer—or tending to children.

Which makes me also wonder if we would be healthier if we took the time to sit down and enjoy a real meal at lunch instead of rushing through it like something that’s a chore.

Fifty years ago, most working people got paid one-hour lunch breaks during their eight-hour workdays. But these days that kind of luxury is pretty rare. Instead, people with nine-to-five jobs often feel like they HAVE to eat at their desk—while working—instead of taking time off to leave their cubicle or office to do it.

Another thing that was different fifty years ago was that the obesity rate wasn’t nearly as high among Americans as it is now.

Is it possible these two things are related?

If Americans took more time to eat a slow, leisurely lunch away from the stresses of daily life, would we all be healthier? And thinner?

We already know this is true of dinner. Americans have gotten bigger over the past twenty years becuase they’re too tired to cook dinner and it’s too easy to pick up fast food or Chinese carryout or order pizza delivery.

But we haven’t really talked that much about lunch and the fact that one thing we’ve lost in our society over the past half a century is the institutionalized lunch break. The more I think about it, the more confident I feel that if we brought back the paid one-hour lunch break, we’d all be healthier and happier. And maybe we’d have more energy at the end of the day to cook a real meal when we got home.

Fast Food Nation: why are our highways littered
with Big Macs and Blizzards?

Spring break starts here at Western Kentucky University tomorrow, and though I’m looking forward to some time away from school, I’m also dreading the idea of trying to stay healthy on the road.

I’ve been so worried about it that Dave and I have actually spent time this week talking about how we can do that. The most obvious answer is to avoid fast food altogether. But when you’re barreling down the highway at 80 miles an hour, trying to get to your destination as fast as you can, that’s not always easy to do.

In fact, when I was living in Cincinnati—where you can find affordable healthy food on nearly every block—the ONLY time I ate fast food was when I was on a road trip.

Back then, I was in my early thirties, and I wasn’t as uptight about eating fast food a couple times a year as I am now. But—as most people know—the older you get, the more you worry about these things.

For a few years we also went through a phase of packing our meals when we had to travel. But when you’re trying to get everything done for a trip, preparing cooler-friendly food is just one more thing slowing you down, so I don’t usually take the time to do that anymore.

Trying to find healthy food on the road is especially difficult because every time you approach an exit with some kind of civilization and see those blue gas-food-lodging signs, they almost always only advertise fast food: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, White Castle.

Crap, crap, and more crap.

You almost never see a listing for a chain restaurant that offers healthy options like Panera Bread or something of that nature. (Yes, there’s admittedly a Subway in every town in America, but contrary to what they want you might think, Subway sandwiches aren’t really that much better—their healthy options may be low-cal but their vegetables are so old and insignificant that you might as well eat a piece of cardboard for all the nutrients you get.) And you can forget about seeing a sign for something really healthy—like a local coffee shop or a vegetarian restaurant.

No, local restaurants are as hard to find on the road as honesty at a presidential debate.

To make matters worse, while driving we’re bombarded with billboards displaying mountainous Big Macs and glowing golden fries. Who can resist those larger than life temptations? It’s amazing how strong the power of suggestion is.

I don’t even like pancakes that much, but every time I see an IHOP billboard on the road with a fluffy stack of flap jacks, I immediately want to devour them.

And realizing this forces me to admit that this is obviously another contributor to the obesity epidemic in America—it’s next to impossible to find healthy road food. Years ago, I used to believe that healthy fast food chains would soon be springing up next to every Dairy Queen, but I now realize that will never happen because fast food restaurants make their money by serving us fat layered on top of sugar disguised as food.

You know, it’s funny to me that we live in a democracy where we are supposedly free to do what we want—to live where we want to live, to do what we want to do, to be who want to be—but sometimes it feels like we’re not entirely free to eat what we want to eat. And that’s because what we want to eat—healthy, local, chemical- and antibiotic-free food—isn’t readily available or affordable for most of us. And that, to me, is incredibly sad.

Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun . . . now say that 24,999 more times.

Today a man from Wisconsin ate his 25,000th Big Mac.*

Yes, you heard me right.
A man ate his 25,000th Big Mac.
And that man is still alive.
And healthy.
If you’ve never seen the movie Super Size Me, you should.

The film follows documentarian Morgan Spurlock as he attempts to find out exactly how bad fast food really is for Americans. In order to do this, Spurlock agrees to eat nothing but food from McDonald’s for one entire month. At the beginning of the month, Spurlock is in perfect condition, but after it’s all over he’s a physcial wreck—he’s gained a ton of weight, has heart and blood problems, and is on the verge of liver failure, proving his theory that fast food is killing us.

But there is one person in Spurlock’s film who remains a mystery, and his name is Don Gorske.

While Spurlock is traveling the country eating supesized meals, he meets Gorske at his hometown McDonald’s in Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin. Everyone there knows Gorske because he goes there every single day. Not only does he go to this McDonald’s every day, he also eats a Big Mac and a Coke every day as well. Sometimes Gorske even dines at his favorite restaurant twice in one day.

Gorske ate his first Big Mac thirty-nine years ago when he was eighteen years old. He liked it so much that he ate eight more the same day. After thirty-nine, he’s now eaten 25,000 Big Macs. That’s an average of 641 hamburgers a year.

Okay, fine, so the guy is completely nuts. We know that. But what doesn’t make sense is how he’s still going. Spurlock eats McDonald’s every day for a month and he almost goes into liver failure. Gorske does it every day of his life, and he’s just fine. So fine that his cholesterol is only 156. (Anything under 200 is good.)

This raises the question, why don’t the Big Macs have the same effect on Gorske as they do on Spurlock and other people?

Who knows?

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t get fries with his double decker Big Mac, which many people claim is the worst part of fast food.

Or maybe he’s taking in fewer calories than the rest of us. If he limits his diet to about two Big Macs and Cokes a day, that means he’s only consuming around 1400 calories, much less than most Americans since it’s recommended that people who are only moderately active get at least 2000 calories every day.

Or maybe we are all just different. Some of us can eat a Big Mac—or two!—every day for forty years and still be tall, lean, and healthy. While others just look at a Big Mac and pop an artery. We’ve known for a long time that genetics play a huge role in our body shape and size. Isn’t it possible that Gorske just has good genes and a high metabolism? His father is 81 and still kicking after all. It’s really easy to think that people gain weight because they stuff their faces with crap all day long, but Gorske is living proof that a bad eater does not necessarily lead to a bad body.

I know people like Gorske—and lots of them. They shovel food in their mouths from sun up to sun down and never gain a pound. I kind of hate these people, but they do prove something we all like to forget: sometimes the biggest pigs are the hardest to spot.

Watch Gorske eat his 25,000th Big Mac here.

Back in my day . . .

Thankfully, after a long, hard, and sick winter, Dave and I are finally walking every day again. Getting back to our routine is wonderful, but it also reminded us recently of how different our childhoods were from the lives of kids today.

And that’s because almost every time we walk through Kereiakes Park, we pass the playground on the far side of the park where kids play on the jungle gym, ride the swings, and—wait for it—eat fast food.

I am not kidding when I say that almost every single time we see a family at the playground, we also see a mom or dad cleaning up the fast food meal they just served their children.

We had seen it so many times that, after a while, we stopped noticing. But being away from the walking trail for weeks this year made us look at this now familiar scene with fresh eyes.

Four kids, two adults, six sets of hamburger wrappers, french fry cartons, and to-go cups.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I think we all know.

“Did you ever take fast food to the park when you were little?” Dave asked me the other day. “When I was young, there was only one McDonald’s on the entire west side of Cincinnati. And going there was a big deal, like going out to a fancy meal or something.”

And he’s right. When we were kids, going out to eat—fast food or otherwise—was a big deal. Sure, on a special occasion or holiday, our families took homemade picnics to the park, but now, for too many American kids fast food is a daily occurrence.

Though this is partly the fault of parents, it’s hard to blame parents alone for this problem when there’s a McDonald’s on over corner. When you have to drive right past one on the way to the park, it’s easy to wonder why you shouldn’t stop and feed the kids while you’re out?

(There is, in fact, a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a Rally’s, and now even a Dairy Queen all within four blocks of Kereiakes Park.)

It’s also hard to blame parents when it costs about two dollars to feed each kid at a McDonald’s.

What’s weird is that I really think a happy meal used to cost more when we were kids than it does now. Am I wrong or didn’t a happy meal in the seventies used to cost three dollars and now they’re just two bucks? Or maybe they’re three now, I’m not sure.

Either way, that doesn’t make any sense! We have had forty years of inflation, but prices at McDonald’s have gone down, not up. How is that possible???

It’s possible because technology is always making it easier to make our food even more processed, meaning that fast food is cheaper today because it’s less real. It’s also possible because the main ingredient in almost all American fast food is corn and/or corn syrup, and corn is heavily subsidized by the federal government in our country, which means that fast food restaurants can sell products made with corn byproducts cheaper than ever before.

Translation: our kids get fatter every time they eat fake, er, I mean fast food.

Processed foods and little pink houses:
why we can’t eat in a small town

194 pounds

It’s been a while since I’ve addressed the question of how I can lose weight without dieting, and I need to start getting back to that question. I’ve already talked about the importance of indulging and making exercise a fun and frequent part of our lives (meaning more than once a day), and I’d like to get through several more tenets of my non-dieting approach over the next few months. The one I want to start talking about first is processed foods—and I say start because this post is only going to talk about why processed foods are more of a problem in our society than I think most people realize.

One of the many problems in our society is what we eat. Many of us know that the quality of what we put in our mouths is as important as the quantity. In his bestselling book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan talks about how bad processed foods are for us—they’re high in sodium, high in calories, high in trans fats, and have little or no nutritional value. Pollan suggests avoiding these problem foods by shopping only in the outlying areas of the grocery store—the produce section, the meat section, the dairy section—and skipping the middle aisles—where boxed Mac ‘n Cheese and canned soup rule. I think we all know that these foods should be avoided, but if we all know this, then why is it that people are still buying these foods? And not just buying them, but buying them en masse?

The answer to this question is more complicated than the fact that these foods taste good or they’re easy to make, though those are clearly excuses that many of us make when we buy processed foods. But these aren’t the only reasons our country is in the middle of a huge obesity epidemic.

I recently had the privilege of living in a small rural town in North Carolina called Laurinburg for two years of my adult life. Despite the inherent challenges of living in such a remote area, I believe that living there was a privilege for two reasons:

1) As anyone who works in academia knows, it is extremely difficult to get a full-time job teaching college English, and I recognize how lucky I was to get one—even if it was in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. (Also, I worked with a number of amazing people, many of whom I hope to be friends with for years to come and who made my life in N.C. richer than one would imagine when looking up Laurinburg on a map.)

2) I also consider it a privilege to have lived in Laurinburg, North Carolina, because, during those two years, I believe I was able to learn more about how regular Americans live than I did in the eleven long years I lived in big cities like Washington, D.C. or Cincinnati.

For instance, I learned that movies don’t become blockbusters because moviegoers want to see them. They become blockbusters because of the theatre owners who book them. Because if you live in a town with as little to do as Laurinburg and it’s a thirty-minute drive to the closest multiplex, you’re more than likely willing to see ANY movie that comes to the run-down two-screen cinema in your town. (What was equally interesting was that while I was living in North Carolina, I always knew what movie would win the weekend box office because it was always the same movie that opened at the theatre in our town that weekend.)

But I also learned a lot about how the average American eats.

When I moved to North Carolina, I had the false sense that we would have access to all kinds of fresh, local food because we’d be living in such a rural area. But if you know anything about the Sandhills of North Carolina, you know that they don’t grow food there. They grow tobacco and cotton.

Still, it was a small town, people didn’t make a lot of money, almost everything was cheap (housing, movie tickets, tuition), so I figured that food would be affordable too.

In some ways this was true. A huge Wal-Mart Super Center was so centrally located in Laurinburg that almost anyone who lived in the city limits could walk there if need be (and it wasn’t unusual to see people doing so). There were a handful of other options for grocery shopping in town: two of them were pretty small and rundown and the third—Harris Teeter—was gorgeous and well stocked but too expensive for us and for most of the people we knew. Of course, if it was too expensive for us—two full-time college professors—it was obviously too expensive for most of the people who lived in Laurinburg. As a result, almost everybody did their grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, and initially we were no exception.

In the beginning, I did my best to focus on Wal-Mart’s positive aspects: so many things were affordable (everything from picture frames to DVDs), and you could buy almost anything you needed in one place. But pretty soon I realized that there was one thing I could almost never buy at Wal-Mart without breaking my bank: produce.

Because, though the Mac ‘n Cheese and the Ramen Noodles and the Ranch salad dressing were the cheapest I’d ever come across in my life, the grapes and the lettuce and the broccoli were outrageously overpriced. I remember one time I wanted to buy grapes for a get-together we were having at our house, and the regular-sized bag I picked up ended up costing eight dollars. Eight dollars! For grapes!

It was this experience that got me thinking about and paying more attention to the produce prices at Wal-Mart, and once I started really looking at them, I realized that—except for the few items that were on sale each week—the Wal-Mart in Laurinburg, North Carolina was price gouging its produce.*

Of course, I immediately understood that the consequence of this was that people in Laurinburg—especially people who couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to supplement their Wal-Mart shopping trips with stops at other grocery stores—probably weren’t buying or eating as much produce as people in other parts of the country.

When I lived in Cincinnati, I eventually bought almost all of our produce and meat downtown at Findlay Market every Sunday, and I could do so for thirty bucks a week. I would come home with three huge paper bags stuffed full of fruits and vegetables (and half a bag of fish, chicken, and beef) and be shocked by how far our money would go there. But if I wanted to buy three bags of produce at Wal-Mart in rural North Carolina, I’d probably spend about four times as much doing so.

Not long after I figured out that Wal-Mart was making up for what they lost on frozen pizza by charging more for apples and oranges, I attended a Fourth of July celebration in nearby Maxton, North Carolina.

If I had thought Laurinburg was small, Maxton soon proved me wrong. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for people from Maxton to drive the five miles to Laurinburg for an evening of cheap movies and fast food.

One of the things that I immediately noticed at the Maxton Fourth of July celebration was that it felt as if almost everyone there was obese.

Obese and poor.

As I had become used to seeing (even in a fancy grocery store like Harris Teeter), children were running around without their shoes on and many of them were in need of a bath and wearing old and ripped clothing. No, not everyone there fit this description, but most did, and in my Gap jeans and espadrilles, I stood out almost as much as Paris Hilton at a church revival. And I also noticed that, unlike other town festivals I’d been to, there were no rides or games, no Scrambler or Ring Toss. There was only one pathetic looking inflatable bouncing machine, the kind you see gracing suburban backyards for the birthday parties of kids who’ve never heard of, much less seen, places like Maxton.

Like many Americans, I immediately wondered how it was that people who appeared to be so poor were also so obese. How people who were clearly not rolling in money were spending so much of what they did have on food.

Then it it all came together for me: these people were not spending a lot of money on food. They were just spending it the wrong way. They weren’t obese because they were pigging out at every meal; they were obese because every meal was high in sodium and calories and trans fats. They were overweight because they could afford as much Mac ‘n Cheese as their hearts desired, but grapes were not in the budget.

Nevertheless, I knew that Wal-Mart was not alone in making the people of Maxton obese.

McDonalds—which was the only place open 24 hours a day in Laurinburg and which frequently had a drive-through line that extended into the street—and Burger King and Wendy’s and Park Grill and Taco Bell and KFC and all of the twenty or so fast food restaurants in Laurinburg were complicit as well. Because in Laurinburg, not only couldn’t you buy foods rich in iron like spinach and blueberries without spending five dollars, you also couldn’t buy a healthy meal in a restaurant unless you went to the only fancy sit-down restaurant in town, a place where a salmon dinner costs around twenty dollars, a price far too high for most of the people who live there. But you could go to one of many fast food restaurants and get a 1000-calorie value meal for around three bucks and maybe even feed a family of three for the same price as that bag of grapes.

The eight-dollar grapes weren’t the only reason I stopped going to Wal-Mart (a documentary called The High Cost of Low Prices also played a big role in that decision), but it was basically the final straw. And my goal here isn’t to convince people to stop going to Wal-Mart (though that would be a nice side effect of this blog). My real goal is to point out how many people in this country—the people who live in places where Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker will never play—don’t have very many choices about what they eat. Essentially, they eat what they’re given, and the result is that many, many, many of them are obese.

I used to be surprised by how many more people in this country are now considered obese—especially by the increase in childhood obesity—and I used to believe that these people were just lazy and undisciplined. But after living two years in the middle of nowhere, the numbers don’t surprise me anymore. It’s not that these people—adults and kids alike—want to eat food that is so bad for them. It’s that, sadly, they don’t have much of a choice.

*I have not done an exhaustive study of the produce prices at Wal-Marts across America, but I do believe that one of the biggest contributors to obesity in this country is that fresh produce costs more than processed foods.

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