Due to the absence of any clear, specific answers, a lot of people believe that obesity comes down mostly to one thing. Of course, what that one thing is differs from person to person: too little exercise, too much food, too many carbs, too many fats, too much processed junk, and so on. And to the extent that we blame society, we are often blaming different things: junk food, soft drinks, TV, lack of fresh vegetables, chocolate milk, and so on. Most people agree that it’s more than one thing, but believe that if we fixed this one thing (or one or two), we would make serious headway.
I’m sure that longtime readers will not be surprised to hear me say (again) I am rather skeptical of this. To take one example, soft drinks, I believe pretty thoroughly that for most people, if soft drinks were banned tomorrow, they would simply switch to something else. I believe this way mostly from experience. Attempts to cut out soft drinks have always been met with greater caloric intake somewhere else. Without fail. And my recent weight loss included a diet regimen of 3-5 sugar drinks a day*.
I consider fast food to be another one of those things. On the one hand, fast food does make misbehaving very easy. And so it’s tempting to blame increasing obesity on the people making it easy. But absent fast food, you still have junk food from the stores. Also easy. Maybe if you get rid of both, but that’s hard. And ethically problematic when you consider how many people consume these things responsibly. Should they be penalized because others can’t? Increasing the taxes on these things hasn’t actually been shown to work. It’s mostly just a regressive sales tax.
But here’s one of the things that I think frequently gets overlooked: fast food establishments actually give you more control over your intake than many of the alternatives. Go to a fast food place, and chances are that they have a 99c menu. Or a cheapskate menu. This menu will typically include reasonably-sized portions for proportional pricing. When it comes to a lot of restaurants, the price incentives are ridiculously skewed towards more, more, more. A half-helping of pasta? $8.95. A full helping? $9.95. When, in fact, the half-helping is likely to be more than you need. The full is twice-as-much. Now, good people are able to eat half and take half home. The ones we need to worry about are those that lack that self-control (note: I am one of them). Fast food establishments do have combo meals, super-sizing, and the like, but their prices remains largely incremental. A buck for a burger. Two? Two bucks. It’s much harder to get anything from Applebee’s for $2, to say the least. And you’re in for a dollar, in for a pound. You get a lot of food - and better food, for that matter - for $7.95… but it’s a lot of food.
Of course, some people will argue that’s the point. When you can get a burrito from Taco Bell for a buck, people get five! The cheapness is part of the problem! But restaurants, whether fast food or family dining, have to make their money somehow. And the factor that there seems to be the most consensus on is that dieting is a matter of portions more than anything else. At least fast food places give you the option of small portions. And don’t financially penalize you for doing so. People don’t take advantage of this, but… having the option is important.
And it all reels back to one of the main things that makes weight so intractable. It’s difficult to externally change someone’s behavior. Making a point of offering healthy food can actually make matters worse. And the same goes for exercise, which people reward themselves for with calories far more than they burned. Fruits and vegetables are nice, but not convenient (even where available fresh, they do not preserve). Junk food is convenient, but not nice. So the enemy becomes convenience itself. How do you fight that?
* - A single sugar drink is a 12oz soft drink can. A 20oz coke counts as two. Fake sugary coffee typically counts as one. It’s inexact, but it’s how I keep track.