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The Big Question

Q: Does It Make Sense to Sue the Fast Food Industry?

Benjamin Caballero, MD, PhD, is director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. A member of the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, he served on the panel that recently revised the recommendations for energy, fats, and carbohydrate intakes and physical activity.
Photo by Mark Lee
A: "No. I have a general philosophical concern about combating obesity by suing someone. And it's very difficult in my opinion to pin it on the food industry--you can have too much fat intake from low-fat food as well, just by eating a lot of it. And conversely, you could have a 50 percent-fat hamburger, and still have a low-fat diet on average, if you just have a hamburger once a month. If you legislate that high-fat foods are dangerous, you would have to outlaw breast milk--it's high in fat.

"Lawyers will not solve this problem. Only education and responsibility will. But I don't want to let the fast food industry off the hook too easily. If I had to sue the companies, I would sue them for their business practices, not the content of their food. Paying schools so they can fill them with vending machines dispensing sugary water to kids is not right. And neither is pushing their products to children through tie-ins with movies, celebrities, action figures, toys--children become a captive audience of this type of food, and they may eat more than they need just to get the goodies.

"Like any company operating in a market economy, fast food restaurants need to expand their customer base. One way is to bring in more customers; the other is to get each customer to buy more. In the fast food industry, it's 'supersizing' or '2 for 1.' But we all have a specific requirement of calories--eating more can only do harm. Food is one product you should not push customers to buy more of than they need.

"Overweight people are about 70 percent of the U.S. population. Of that group, around 30 percent are obese. The cost to the economy is more than $80 billion a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That cost includes the complications of obesity, absenteeism, and loss of productivity; it doesn't include the individual costs of dieting programs. You gain weight because you are sedentary. We need to find a way to integrate daily activity with daily living.

"McDonald's and other chains have said in the past that when they tried offering healthy foods, they did not sell well. But it's a matter of combining education, promotion, and availability. I don't see them promoting healthier salads with toys. Just doing something low in calories doesn't ensure its success. You have to spend as much money as you spend on the other stuff, doing market research and promoting it consistently."

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