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Fast food a fast way to ruin health

Alan Braunholtz

A man suffering from a rare digestive disorder is told by his doctor that he needs to eat more, three times the normal daily amount in K calories. He enters a fast food burger joint and asks the server if they have any meal with 8,000 K calories in it. The server “hmms” for a few seconds, consults with the fry cook before replying, “Yeah, I guess we could give you half a kiddies meal.”

Fast food is being raised into the cross hairs of public health concerns. Obesity seems to be well on its way to becoming the world’s No. 1 health problem.

A recent report by the Center for Disease Control predicted that one in three U.S. children born in 2000 will suffer from type 2 diabetes, a disease that comes with too much refined food and not enough exercise. Refined food (sugar or simple carbohydrates) tends to be cheap if empty of nutrients and in the U.S., diabetes and obesity are linked to poverty.



As the Western nations export their sedentary lifestyle and processed foods to the world, dietary disease becomes a worldwide problem. The World Health Organization estimates that non-communicable diseases cause 60 percent of all deaths, i.e. cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, obesity.

People concerned with public health agonize over this, as these diseases are to a large part preventable by changing our behavior. If we smoked less, exercised more and ate better, we’d die less often.



Here the WHO butts heads with two of the world’s more powerful industries not renowned for their concern with public health. The tobacco lobbies maneuvering to avoid any control of its right to hook populations to the deadly habit of smoking are legendary. The food industry looks to flex its muscles as it comes under closer scrutiny.

The WHO released a report, “Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.” The goals of the report aren’t earth-shatteringly new, Limit intake of fat, eat fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates and limit sugar intake to below 10 percent of daily energy intake.

The U.S.-based Sugar Association, which represents growers and refiners, went ballistic, publicly threatening to use all its lobbying power (campaign contributions to well connected Florida politicians?) to get Congress to suspend the annual U.S. contribution to the WHO.



Recent lawsuits against fast-food chains are at first glance ridiculous. It’s sort of a given that fat people are the weak-willed authors of their own condition or at a charitable best unfortunates trapped in a sluggish metabolism. The lawyers filing these claims are smart people, so what are they seeing that the public is not? Primarily, I think, they’re seeing the huge damage-cost of obesity and that fast-food companies share some responsibility for this through marketing and selling products and portions that are bad for your health. The lawyers are also probably seeing a few big bank accounts, too.

Weird, huh? Food, an essential for life, is dangerous. What makes fast food so different from home cooking is its vast amount of fats and sugars. New research threatens to liven up these lawsuits. Apparently, meals loaded with fats and sugars might change our normal eating behavior. Some suggest that infusions of fat and sugar act on the brain in ways similar to nicotine and heroine.

A part of the brain called the hypothalamus controls how we eat. Fat cells produce a protein called leptin, which the hypothalamus reacts to. High levels we stop eating, low levels means we’re starving. High fat meals disrupt this leptin system, removing the brakes from over-eating.

Cut out the fatty meals and you’re back to normal, unless you became overweight. Then you’re kind of trapped. Overweight people have consistently high leptin levels and the hypothalamus becomes insensitive. Eventually these high levels become the accepted norm and any drop in leptin induced by dieting is read as starvation. Another hormone, galanil, stimulates eating in rats and slows down energy expenditure. When rats eat a high fat diet, this hormone increases, creating a self-reinforcing cycle.

Addiction and food are closely linked. The brain evolved a reward system to motivate us to seek out good things like food and sex. The brain releases natural opioids (endorphins and enkephalins) that stimulate dopamine releases for that reward feeling. Addictive drugs hijack this system and create short-cuts in the wiring of the brain.

It’s early days in the research and scientific debate, but it looks like you can get hooked on your natural opioids if stimulated enough. High doses of fat, sugar and “potent sexual stimuli” are the only stimuli capable of activating the opioid-dopamine system anywhere near the effect of addictive drugs.

Yes, sex and food are addictive. While I can see some of our “moral majority” happy to extend the war on drugs to include other un-American acts like “potent sexual stimuli” (unfortunately the research article didn’t elaborate though they’re probably talking about rats again), I’m more intrigued by the possibilities of illegal dealing in burgers and fries.

The scientific debate on this will be moving into the courtroom, which is never good for science. Still, it’s a debate and pressure on the food industry that will continue. The history of anti-smoking campaigns suggests that education and “rah rah be healthy” speeches have little effect without regulation and the continuing threat of legal attack. Both are needed to change industries’ behavior and attitudes to consider the public’s health.

The fight over healthy food will be a political one, as it contains the elements of free enterprise, public health and regulation. Money speaks loudest in politics, so for now the tax revenues and the campaign contributions of the food industry will win.

Last year we spent $115 billion on fast food, more than on new cars or higher education. This sort of clout makes it tough for government to get serious with an “eat less” message when the industry demands an “eat more” mantra for continued profits. Look for the U.S. population to keep super-sizing itself for awhile.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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