Monday, 4 March 2013

Book Review: Fast Food Vindication

fast food vindication
Fast Food Vindication by Lisa Tillinger Johansen

Obesity, kids eating more salt, portion sizes getting bigger. You only have to open the pages of a national newspaper to see that our fast food companies are generally held up to blame for all of this. But author Lisa Tillinger Johansen argues that fast food companies are actually doing a number of good things and shouldn't be solely held to account for our obesity epidemic. And she's also a nutritionist. 

She talks about our modern fast food culture - and how attempts made in the past to banish fast food from our streets (a knee-jerk reaction to solve the crisis) isn't the answer. She says that fast food has become ingrained in our society and we just don't have the time to grow veg and cook all our meals from scratch nowadays. She also argues that the calories we consume in fast food joints is 'often no worse' than in sit-down restaurants where we're constantly asked if we want additional sides, top up drinks and desserts (waiting staff are, she says, essentially salespeople at the end of the day). 

'But I've seen SuperSize Me', I hear you cry, the film where Morgan Spurlock ate all three meals at McDonald's each day and found he gained weight along with other unhealthy symptoms. But Spurlock is criticised here, in that he only chose higher calorie items instead of lighter meals, and the public, generally don't eat at one fast food restaurant the whole time, for every meal. Tillinger Johansen also argues that instead of damaging McDonald's, the film actually sparked a series of McDonald's-only diets, with some people actually losing weight (not something she advises doing, but it did show the flipside to the film.)

Yes, fast food chains are constantly serving up bigger portion sizes, offering french fries with every side and huge cups of sugar-laden fizzy drinks. But she argues that when people overeat, it's done at home and in sit-down (non fast food) restaurants more often than in fast food restaurants. She gives the example of her husband snacking on a bag of walnuts during a telephone conversation, a small snack which amounted to 2,000 calories - an entire day's worth. 

The book also talks about the things fast food companies have done to improve society and life for their customers. They've actually lowered the salt content in foods, ditched the fries for a bag of fruit in kids' meals and made calorie and other nutritional information public. They've also contributed to society by employing huge numbers of culturally diverse people (McDonald's employs more people than any other firm in the US), investing them and sending them on management courses, as well as providing English lessons for their staff and also free meals (I never even got that working in a country pub on split shifts for 12 hours on a weekend - I had to go home and grab something to eat at half time).

Although the book does, at times, feel like an advertisement for the fast food industry, at some point you do realise that society loves a scapegoat, while it continues to happily munch down lunches that amount to 3,000 calories, whether at home or in restaurants. You also realise that the fast food industry has indeed given a lot of positive things back to society. And while it's true that this has also generated publicity for them, Tillinger Johansen says that most of this is done 'outside the spotlight.' 

If you've ever condemned the fast food industry for the wrongs of our society, then you owe it to yourself to read this book. You'll soon see that it's not as clear cut as you might have previously thought. I still think fast food companies have obligations to fulfil (and automatically up-selling giant bags of fries and huge cups of sugary drinks isn't one of them) but at the end of the day, we choose what to eat, and just because we're asked if we want a 390-calorie milkshake alongside our 890-calorie burger and 330-calorie fries, it doesn't mean we have to say yes. 

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