Keira Butler at Mother Jones continues her assault on fast food this week, calling out hospitals that house a McDonald’s restaurant. The Physicians for Committee for ResponsibleMedicine (PCRM) is behind much of this effort, creating a public health nightmare for anyone who dares to consume anything served from a fast food counter. But there may be a silver lining to the sloppy science and sloppier journalism.
PERCEPTION DRIVES EVERYTHING
I consult for the owners of McDonald’s in Southern California and spoke to Kiera Butler at the 2014 CDA convention last year. I recall a biting article slamming dietitians for allowing McDonald’s to exhibit at their conference that conveniently omitted any information that countered her agenda. On March 18 of this year Kiera reported that the board at CDA declined to invite McDonald’s back, this time exposing how a decades long public health campaign that frames fast food as public enemy #1 triggered fear in health professionals who shouldn’t be caving to a smear campaign.
The pervasive perception that fast food drives obesity lives on despite research that tells us otherwise. Too often medical and public health entities continue to press their arguments even as research points to a multitude of factors that contribute to the rising incidence of obesity and poor metabolic health.
Kiera’s latest piece insinuates that hospitals which house a McDonald’s restaurant promote poor health and irreparable harm to patients, visitors and staff alike. Public perception trumps science again. Despite the best efforts of food service administrators to emphasize healthier food choices, hospital cafeterias serve plenty of refined starch, sugar, salt, and fat on their own.
WHAT ELSE IS SERVED AT THE HOSPITAL?
A graduate student who interned with me years ago visited hospital cafeterias in Southern California to assess how their fare differed from fast food. The first whiff in every facility led her to a grill station that serves hamburgers and French fries. Inevitably the grill station also sported the longest line of visitors and staff.
Today I take the time to visit hospital cafeterias at every opportunity. Most sell sugared cereals, donuts, and pastries in the morning. They serve hamburger and fries for lunch, dinner and in between. Soda, chips, candy, and other snacks are readily available all day long. So exactly how is fast food more likely to harm the health of the infirm, the visitors or the staff?
PERPETUATING POPULAR SENTIMENT THAT PASSES FOR JOURNALISM
I’d love to see Ms. Butler step up and actually exercise her investigative reporting skills. The action by CDA didn’t resolve the issue of commercial interests exhibiting at health conferences. It merely triggered a knee jerk reaction. My bet is the same will occur with hospitals tripping over themselves to avoid a negative spotlight of their own.
Instead of a serious discussion regarding the range of issues impacting poor metabolic health and disease, the public is exposed to a contrived message regarding fast food in hospitals. Why didn’t Kiera investigate the food served in hospital cafeterias in order to more honestly address the bigger picture?
FAST FOOD BASHING MORE POLITICAL SPORT THAN SCIENCE
Much of the grandstanding about doing away with fast food in hospitals has everything to do with politically correct behavior and calming the ruffled feathers of image conscious donors. I’ve learned that hospital administrators and medical officers recognize the disconnect between public beliefs and what the science tells us. They just don’t have the backbone to stand up to unsubstantiated public health assumptions or the journalistic bullying that finds it fashionable to perpetuate myths about fast food.
In a recent study funded by McDonald’s teens reported eating fewer calories from hamburgers, less pizza and less fast food overall between 2003 and 2010, accounting for about 1/2 of the 220 fewer calories consumed per day. A JAMA study looking at the same time period found, “There have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012 [and] obesity rates haven’t budged” This data isn’t surprising. I’ve written previous blogs that poke holes in the decades-long distortion linking fast food and obesity. (see articles listed below)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN FAST FOOD INCLUDES HEALTHIER OPTIONS, TOO?
While many celebrate the decline of fast food, they conveniently disregard the increasing availability of fresh produce, whole grains, and more healthful choices at these same establishments. They fail to recognize the significant impact that fast food exerts on how we grow our crops and raise our animals. It is not lost of the rest of us when McDonald’s announces it will stop using antibiotics important to humans in chickens, Carl’s Jr.’s decides to offer grass fed burgers, and Chipotles sources as much sustainably grown food as possible.
Closing fast food restaurants and reducing food intake from fast food will not likely impact the health of patients, visitors, or staff, mostly because the rest of the food environment remains abundant and adulterated, and people still eat everything else. McDonald’s is no longer available at Children’s Hospital LA, but the hospital now offer visitors a guide that identifies local eateries…including McDonald’s. As I scan the list, I wonder how many restaurants on the list swap French fries for fruit or salad at no extra charge?
MAYBE A SILVER LINING
The last 20 years of public health efforts to reduce obesity hinges on wishful thinking. (ie: If only we could get rid of fast food.) Research never demonstrated anything more than an association between fast food and child obesity. That’s different than establishing cause and effect. Sloppy science, sloppy journalism. Contrary to PCRM’s agenda, we need everyone who touches food to be part of the solution, including fast food.
The conventional way we farm and produce food today is not sustainable, but change is messy. Both individuals and corporations balk at change unless they are uncomfortable, and this is where all the bad press may have some positive outcome. A Grist article highlighting how the palm oil industry is changing gives me hope. I have come to understand that shrill voices condemning fast food take on the antagonistic role of NGO’s in this plot. They are the agents of discomfort. Dietitians like myself provide the cooperative support to help food companies change in ways that makes sense for the health of their customers, as well as their bottom line. One thing for sure, there is more change to come.
For additional discussion of related issues:
1. Determining what is and isn’t junk food http://muchmorethanfood.com/blog/who-gets-to-determine-what-is-junk-food/practices/
2. Which came first? Industrial farming or fast food? http://muchmorethanfood.com/blog/is-fast-food-driving-industrial-farming-practices/
3. Challenging the popular notion that fast food makes you fat http://muchmorethanfood.com/blog/the-elephant-in-the-room-fast-food-doesnt-make-you-fat/
4. Fast food and the kid’s meal toy ban http://muchmorethanfood.com/blog/san-francisco-supervisors-vote-to-pass-kid%E2%80%99s-meal-toy-ban/