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DHS news release

April 30, 2004

Fast-food chains can help fight obesity

This guest opinion is by Mel Kohn, M.D., state epidemiologist in the Oregon Department of Human Services. For a photo of Mel Kohn, please call (503) 945-5738 or e-mail jim.sellers@state.or.us

Length: 526 words


By Mel Kohn, M.D.

"Oh, and 'Supersize' that, please."

If you haven't used those words yourself, then you've been behind someone in line who did.

The concept, pioneered by McDonald's, allows a fast-food customer to order a larger portion for a relatively modest additional cost.

Make no mistake: I'm not about to attack the Golden Arches. Indeed, because of its convenience my family and I find ourselves pulling into fast-food establishments from time to time. We contribute to the more than $125 billion in annual sales at some of the nation's 222,000 fast-food restaurants.

But the distressing fact is, fast food can be very high in calories, and increasing caloric intake is a major contributor to the nation's growing obesity problem. And obesity was only recently identified as approaching tobacco's place as the premiere cause of premature death among Americans.

Eaten regularly, fast food contributes to obesity because it's so energy dense that most of our bodies don't get enough exercise to burn up the excess calories. Large portion sizes marketed by fast-food outlets only make this problem worse.

Consider: When you supersize a meal with a larger portion of fries and larger soda, this can add 380 calories. Although that doesn't sound like much, consuming those calories only once a week can add five and a half pounds to your weight in a year.

The good news is this is a problem with a solution. McDonald's, by announcing that it will discontinue the "supersize" option, already has taken a step in the right direction. More can be done.

For example, how many people know that a 1/3-pound burger has 740 calories, but the 2/3-pound burger weighs in at 1,200 calories? By now, most consumers instinctively know that fast-food meals are high in calories.

But, unlike highly accessible nutrition labels on packages at the grocery store, fast-food outlets often don't make it easy. Granted, some chains have posters or brochures in their stores, but often that information is inconvenient and hard to use. If restaurants want to make the healthy choice the easy choice, they can put those numbers on the menu to help people make informed choices.

Likewise, most fast-food meals come with fries and high calorie sodas. These restaurants could help make it easier for us to keep our caloric intake down by making the default accompaniment to our meals lower calorie items such as a small salad, piece of fruit, a low-fat milk or bottle of water. Fries and sugared sodas would still be available, but we'd have to ask for them specifically to get them.

Advertising heavily influences what we consume, including uncounted burgers, fries and sodas. Overall, food advertising and promotion of all kinds amounted to $26 billion in 2000 -- and only about 2 percent of that was for fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Increasing the share of advertising that promotes healthier foods, especially for children, would contribute greatly to our long-term health.

So, McDonald's, thank you for making it a little easier for my family, and millions of others, to eat more healthfully. Here's hoping it's only the start of an industry trend to help us make wise choices when we eat out.

Mel Kohn, M.D., is state epidemiologist in the Oregon Department of Human Services.