Fat Kids, Fat Profits

BY Laura S. Washington

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Corporations are urging us to drink Coke in the morning and down a KFC Extra Crispy for lunch. It adds up to exploding obesity rates.

I recently encountered a colleague at the movies. He was big when I saw him a year ago, but now he was barely recognizable.

Eleven days later, he was dead. He collapsed at work–three days after Christmas–and died of a heart attack. He was 46, married and at the apex of his career. He was “larger than life,” the obituary read.

A reporter at the top of his game is just one of many casualties. In fact, an estimated 112,000 Americans succumb to obesity-related illnesses every year, according to a 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

In December, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a devastating new study by researchers at Columbia University and the University of California, San Francisco. By 2035, the percentage of American adults with obesity-related coronary heart disease will increase by as much as 16 percent, and obesity-related heart disease deaths could grow by as much as 19 percent.

And in 2005, another study found that for the first time since the Civil War, Americans’ life expectancy is expected to decline by the middle of the 21st century, by an average of two to five years. The main culprit: obesity.

“The prospects if nothing is done are potentially catastrophic,” David Ludwig, director of the weight-management program at Children’s Hospital Boston and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told the Kansas City Star in December 2007. “The economic costs will be staggering,” said Ludwig, one of the researchers on the child obesity study.

Personal responsibility plays a role. There is plenty of research and education out there to knock down the excuses. Some people are getting it. Even singer Aretha Franklin, who for years drew snickers over her whale of a torso, announced last spring that she was turning to the Jenny Craig weight loss program.

Still, fat is big business. Chew on this: A new study funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation that analyzed TV ads aired nationally over five months in 2005 found that 34 percent of food ads that targeted children or teens hustled candy and snacks, and 10 percent pitched fast foods. A mere 1 percent advertised fruit juices. Not one of the 8,854 spots reviewed promoted fruits or vegetables.

Instead, turn on the tube for Cheetos, Ding Dongs and Sprite. And, lest we forget, the ever popular Chicken McNuggets. A December 2007 report from the watchdog group Corporations and Health Watch found that McDonald’s peddles puzzles, cartoons, bikes, skates and scooters to lure children to the golden arches.

In 2006, Mickey D’s spent almost $2.5 million a day on traditional advertising in the United States, according to the group. About 40 percent of that sum aimed at children.

In Florida, McDonald’s recently cut a deal with the Seminole County School Board to reward high-performing schoolchildren with the fried and true McDonald’s Happy Meal. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will get a free Happy Meal from the local McDonald’s if they earn As and Bs, or miss no more than two days of school in the 2007-2008 school year. The message to children is heinous: Get good grades–eat good grease.

Danya Proud, a McDonald’s spokeswoman based at the national headquarters in Oakbrook, Ill., told the New York Times that the Seminole County program was “a very local decision.” Chicken McNuggets, a Happy Meal mainstay, is made with white meat, she noted, and children can choose options like apple slices and low-fat milk over soda and French fries.

Yeah, I’m sure they will.

Extrapolate it out. The mega corporations are urging us to drink Coke in the morning and down a three-piece KFC Extra Crispy for lunch, with a pile of Oreos on the side. It adds up to exploding obesity rates.

Luckily, pressure from consumer groups and government agencies are beginning to make a dent in the long slog against fat. After the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest sued KFC in 2006, the fried chicken chain switched to using frying oil that is free of trans fats. The move has huge implications; “The Colonel” has more than 5,400 restaurants in the United States alone.

In November 2006, 10 major food and drink marketers, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup, agreed to adopt new voluntary rules for advertising. They also promised to set aside at least half their child-related advertising to encourage healthier diets and lifestyles.

But there’s a ways to go–72 million ways, in fact–the number of Americans that the CDC currently classifies as obese. That’s a lot of reasons, too, to say “no” to the corporate interests that are pushing heart disease, diabetes and death.

Vote with your dollars. It might save your life.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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