The Ethics of Obesity Part II: Dying for Fast Food?

The second in a three part series on obesity

Obesity has a deeply emotional aspect that defies easy solutions. It remains to be seen what ethical leadership will emerge from the food, beverage, restaurant, and fast food industries in really addressing their part in the obesity crisis. The industries are being politically correct donating money and having promotions to advertise healthy life choices. They also offer “healthy” menu options, though critics charge the options aren’t always healthy.  The real problem is business as usual still creates menu choices that customers eat at their own peril.

Those marketing to the nearly 20 percent of youth who are obese or the 2 out of 3 Americans who are overweight/obese have a significant social responsibility. Through their ingredients and preparation, these industries are contributors to both the obesity crisis and the $147 billion annually in additional health care cost consequences.

Statistics on those overweight or obese have continued to climb. In 2008, obesity rose in nearly 25 states and decreased in none.  Jack in the Box is one of many companies who apparently make a disconnect between their offering products with clever marketing and the consequences to those who choose to eat them. It reintroduced their teriyaki bowls this year under the “Healthy Dining” category. The steak bowl has 1010 calories and 2270 mg. of sodium; the chicken at 980 calories has 1880 mg sodium. This head-in-the-box thinking would be healthy to whom?

This food equivalent of greenwashing, I call “healthdousing. It is insidious in its potential to mislead.  It is like Marketing arm wrestled Conscience and the winner was Rationalization —  because a benefit was identified, significant nutritional red flags can be ignored.

Fast food chains have created and marketed promotions that fly in the face of the obesity crisis. They also have considerable resources to fight back any challenges. Take the “super-size” menu promotion McDonald’s offered with gargantuan sizes and calories, including 7 oz fries and a 42 oz coke with the equivalent of 28 teaspoons of sugar. Morgan Spurlock did a documentary film on the consequences of his eating only McDonald’s food (and always a super-size option if asked) for 30 days – he gained 25 pounds and experienced liver problems and depression. McDonald’s aggressively attacked the film claimed it had no impact on their sales, but did drop its promotion about the time the 2004 film was released.

McDonald’s has an off-camera part in the Sundance Festival award-winning film “Precious” which opened last month. The Harlem teenagers in the film speak about McDonald’s reverentially. The film’s lead character, “Precious,” deals with her poverty, illiteracy, emotional and sexual abuse from her mother, repeated rape from her father, teenage parenthood, and her relationship to food.  In one scene, a maternity ward nurse played by Lennie Kravitz, is eating fruit, advocating eating healthy while “Precious” fantasizes about going to McDonald’s. Precious is starved throughout the film with a hunger deep within; yet she pushes through incredible  obstacles to create the best life she can.

So where does that leave us?  We’re facing a national crisis and the traditional model of consumer demand changing market offerings isn’t working. This isn’t like the auto industry where during soaring oil prices customers stopped buying gas guzzlers and demanded fuel efficient cars.

The call is for ethical leadership here because the demand for changes in nutritional content in food and beverages isn’t really coming from the overweight and obese consumer. And using that as the excuse not to do more is a shell game to avoid corporate responsibility. The pressure is being created by the government, medical experts, food advocates, research findings, and skyrocketing health care costs as a consequence of obesity. So the question is how will these companies respond?

The Ethics of Obesity Part III will look at a RAND study, work by Naked Chef Jamie Oliver, and Epode, a program in Europe achieving success in fighting obesity

Gael O’Brien, December 14, 2009

The Week in Ethics

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3 Comments on “The Ethics of Obesity Part II: Dying for Fast Food?”


  1. Legally speaking, I think the operable term here is “informed consent”. People say if you go to a fast food restaurant, you know you are probably eating crap. So you deserve what you get, right? No, I think you have a right to know what you are eating. And if what you are eating could make you ill – or even kill you – the seller of that food owes you – legally – the facts with which to make an informed decision about whether to eat it. More and more, I think we will see prepared food purveyors having to put disclaimers on unhealthy food – if for no other reason than to protect themselves from being sued into oblivion. The food industry is about to find out what life has been like the last 20 years for the cigarette industry.


  2. […] Gael O’Brien The Week in Ethics: Columns on Ethics, Leadership and Life « The Ethics of Obesity Part II: Dying for Fast Food? […]

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