On McDonald’s and Obesity

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 24:  A McDonald's resta...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There’s a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange that is having its best year ever. Sales are up, even as the nation is reeling from one of the worst financial catastrophes in its history. Its revenues are up, even as its direct competitors are struggling.

This company is run like a tight ship. An excellent stock to invest in, no doubt. In the last 5 years, the stock has gone up fivefold. That’s better than even Google or Apple.

In top business schools around the world, this company is a study in excellence – students read entire books dedicated to this corporation. They learn how to build operations, sales, marketing, global teams, and brand, all based on the leadership of the company’s executives.

What is this company and what is it selling?

McDonald’s, a symbol of the American way, has been selling us burgers, fries and shakes for 60 years. Our grandparents tried it in the 50′s and 60′s, our parents grew up to love it, we loved it as kids, and now our children love it too. Sounds perfect, right?

But there is one flaw. McDonald’s and its fast food peers are slowly but surely creating an obese nation. In an interesting article published today by Stacey Folsom  of Corporate Accountability International, we learn that the great profits of McDonald’s come at a great price to the nation. Diet related illness costs the US 120 billion dollars annually.

Is McDonald’s paying for these fees? Absolutely not. We are. The fast food chain’s PR department blames everyone but themselves for another record breaking year of obesity. The article tackles each of the company’s claims:

“It’s not our food that’s to blame, it’s a lack of exercise.” (In fact, recent studies have shown that we’re exercising almost the same as we did 30 years ago)

“It’s not our marketing to kids that’s to blame, it’s all the video games and internet media that distract our kids from physical activity.” (that’s why they also have a website for kids with lots of fun games…)

“We’re a leader in offering healthier menu choices.” (like salads with more calories than big macs?)

“It’s not our responsibility that kids are getting sick from eating too much of our food, that’s on parents.” (That’s why fast food joints conveniently like to be located next to schools, right?)

As we posted in yesterday’s rant, the system is malfunctioning.

McDonald’s growth in shareholder value goes hand in hand with the growth in our waistlines.

Which will stop growing first?

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  • http://newtaste.com Dave Schy

    Let’s be realistic, McDonalds is not going to go away and people are not going to stop eating fast food. I think that the Hispanic family featured in the movie Food Inc. gives us good insight to the reality of this situation. As I watched the movie I couldn’t help thinking that if only someone would have suggested an acceptable compromise to that family.
    I believe that at this time the best we could hope for would be to convince the heavy users of fast food to order sandwiches without cheese or bacon and to skip the French fries and soda. Two hamburgers and a glass of water would satisfy their hunger and the money they saved on the drinks and fries could be used to buy a few apples and oranges for dessert.

  • http://www.fooducate.com/blog staff

    Dave,
    You are absolutely correct, we’re not going to see a revolution like 1776 or 1789. But consumers are currently powerless against the might of “big food”. Will trying to convince consumers to be moderate in there choices be adequate? No. The reason is that there are not nearly enough affordable alternatives. And there won’t be as long as junk food gets subsidized (corn and soy ag) so that the price paid for it is less than its actual cost.
    Bigger changes are required on the side of corporations, and it is the government’s task to make them happen and protect us, not an individual consumer’s.

  • http://newtaste.com Dave Schy

    Yes, I understand what you are saying and I hope someday that broccoli is more affordable than the dollar menu. My suggestion above is for something that we could try today. It has been my experience that people are confused when it comes to cooking and eating and may have never considered my proposed compromise. As a good example of this, last week I showed a Hispanic mother in my neighborhood how to roast strawberries and apricots and serve them over plain yogurt for breakfast. She is now serving that to her family and told me that they like it. This is something she would have never thought of, yet, with a 10 minute lesson, this new breakfast item will have an immediate impact on her family.

  • http://www.shapingamericasyouth.com Brit

    This is an interesting discussion. First, I would say that a little more responsiblity needs to be given to the consumer. Most consumers know that McDonald’s isn’t healthy and aren’t helpless in the decision. It is a personal choice. It would be helpful for consumers to be educated on healthier, cheaper food they can buy like lentils, dried beans, brown rice, etc. These things can be bought in bulk to save money and provide essential fibers, proteins, and vitamins. Even providing information on co-ops in neighborhoods that recycle old fruits and vegetables from stores would be great- even dumpster diving can be useful, as I’ve seen people find apples, mangoes, tomatoes, asparagus, etc. that although may have small bruise or needs to be eaten within the next couple of days, is overall fine.

    I do believe that the amount of fast food places should be limited, but I don’t think that it’s a direct caused relationship; i.e., we cannot blame McDonald’s solely for our nation becoming overweight. The internet, movies, video games, lack of physical education and nutrition information in schools are all other highly influential problems that have led us to this point.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog staff

      Brit,
      Of course the blame is not solely on McDonald’s or its peers. I agree that consumer education is important. Heck, that’s what we are humbly is trying to do at Fooducate. But, and this is a big But (pun intended), all the efforts at consumer education are currently dwarfed by the marketing and sales efforts of junk food corporations. This is because there is no direct revenue to be made by such activities vs. the vast financial remuneration going to “Big Food” shareholders and executives. The playing field is not balanced at all, and this is the place where government regulators must step in, just like they did with Tobacco.

  • http://www.shapingamericasyouth.com Brit

    Thanks for responding so quickly. This topic is really interesting and I’d love to know more about it. Can you offer more concrete examples of the consumer efforts that are being made currently? Groups, organizations, movements, nonprofits, etc. that have been thwarted? I believe they exist; I would like to do some research for my own knowledge.

    From personal experience, consumer awareness on the evils of these corproations have been taught to me throughout school; McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, etc. It began in junior high and highschool, and continued throughout college. I have even found local organizations, like MediaThink, which work with a lot of community groups to educate children about false and leading advertisements within the media world, the medium in which McDonalds and others are achieving superstar status and familiarity.

    Please let me know what you think. Great topic and article. There are a lot of interesting points and suggestions in the article that have the power to be really effective, and I think that putting regulations on McDonalds is a way to change the way fast food is regarded. I’d also like to shed light and emphasize organizations that are already achieving this on a smaller scale.

  • Afoue

    People should have the right to eat what they want. If parents learned how to control their children it wouldn’t matter if there was a McDonalds next to a school. If you don’t want your kids to eat fast food, you could always not give them money. Stop blaming the companies. They’re not going to go away so people may as well accept it and start controlling their own lives instead of acting like an invisible force makes them eat junk food.

    I recently read a book called Junk by Christopher Largen in which all junk food was banned–in fact, it had the same stigma as drugs do today. Doesn’t sound too far off from what’s starting to happen now. Now in the news I hear more and more about taking “bad” candy out of school vending machines and new food laws being considered. Don’t we have a right to eat what we want? Yes, they’re kids and they should know if their food is good for them, but there should still be a choice. Everything is okay in moderation (for the most part). Shoveling five burgers a day down your throat is a bad idea, but what about people who eat out once a week? Once a month? Is it really that big a deal? People should be able to choose to be healthy or unhealthy; it’s their bodies.

  • Brittany

    @Afoue

    Will power is central to the entire debate about self-inflicted obesity. Regardless of where McDonald’s is positioned, people are going to eat it. The company isn’t going to do much more in the way of offering healthier options because who is going to argue with 50 years of profits a hamburger and soda? They’re a business – they want to make money, not appease the health care system. Quite frankly, it’s not their responsibility anyway.

    I have also read “Junk” by Christopher Largen and it raises a lot of issues (mentioned before by Afoue). Prohibition didn’t work – why would banning food or forcing people to eat certain foods work? Forcing people to eat healthy won’t make them healthy – it may make it worse, because when they get their hands on unhealthy food they’ll overindulge and probably put on weight – much in the way that a dieter who has cut out everything they love will consume large amounts of ice cream or cake when they finally have it. They may gain weight or feel defeated and eat poorly to feel better. I think people should be better informed about nutrition, but at the end of the day it’s the consumers decision.

  • Andy

    I’ve read through what has been discussed above, and there’s some interesting points – but wow it’s a hard issue! and it’s difficult to get one’s head around all the aspects of the complex consumer decision making process and the roles of different and powerful stakeholders like McDonalds and indeed the Govt.

    My thoughts though are that:
    dumpster diving = too extreme
    freedom of consumer choice = a must of civil liberty
    increase in healthy choice and availability/awareness = a must for societal health
    balancing of organisational profits and social costs = role of government as elected power-arm of the people.

    –> I’m not a big fan of taxes, and don’t know much about the American situation where “Junk food gets subsidized” but what about a ‘fat tax’?.. simply the idea of increasing (balancing) prices so as to provide disincentive for frequent repeat purchases. Ideally, this would attribute the true costs (health burden) to the consumer purchase action and could be reallocated towards national health expenditure (preventative). I guess one could argue that there is then issues of the tax burden being shouldered by the poor (lower SES), who often have lower levels of self-efficacy, awareness of alternatives and increasing perceptions of price, time, access pressures.

    –> This problem with self-efficacy could be coupled with education as a tool for empowering choice – need to make the healthy option the easy (real and perceived) option but this denotes a need for real cultural change which is often generational.

    –> Perhaps incentivise entrepreneurial activity in ‘healthy fast food’. I know that Sushi is booming here is Australia, and Subway is competitive and commercially savvy whilst providing healthy(er) lunch options.

    Well there’s my “food for thought”…

  • 50027020

    shut mcdonalds down not its to good and i weigh 102 pounds and im only 15

    • Lkrueger

       Heh, im turning 15, im extremly thin and i’m 171 lbs. how tall are you?