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Some Kids Eat Fast Food; Some Kids Are Fat

Two studies, one suggesting that 30 percent of US children surveyed reported eating fast food on at least one of the two days they were studied, the other claiming that our teenagers believe they are the fattest in the industrialized world, contributed to a nearly perfect media obesity storm.

The idea that fast food is the culprit behind our weight problems appears to have become received wisdom for some journalists. We offer recent media takes on the issue and leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding the matter of whether the media are helping or hindering the quest for useful information on the actual problem obesity represents, and what can be done about it:

The, Unfortunately, Missing Link

The headline reads: Study Links Fast Food, Obesity. Theres only one problem; the ensuing story provides no link, only a healthy dose of conjecture and imagination, cemented by clear bias against the fast food industry.

Lindsey Tanner, AP Medical Writer, put it this way: Every day, nearly one-third of U.S. children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food, which likely packs on about six extra pounds per child per year and increases the risk of obesity, a study of 6,212 youngsters found. The story ran January 6, and made its way into the national media, but hopefully not the national consciousness. We wonder how many noticed the word likely in the sentence modifying the packs on about six extra pounds per child per year.

Oops! Where Did I Put That Link?

It had to be there, because later in the story Tanner slips in the fact that: The results are based on children questioned in government surveys from 1994 to 1996 and 1998. The study lacks data on the children's weight. Thats right; the reporter thought that a lack of any data on the kids weight was irrelevant to linking obesity and fast food. They eat fast food; therefore, they are.

Dave Ross, reporting on CBS News, had this to say: 2004 is only five days old and already we have the first report of the year warning us that kids are too fat. A study of 6,200 youngsters finds that every day, nearly one third of US children eat fast food. And guess what it's doing to them: six extra pounds per child per year, by one estimate, 187 unnecessary calories a day. That's about three and a half Oreos or a bottle of soda from the school vending machine. Again, the six pounds per year assertion, this time without mentioning that no weight measurements were ever taken.
Rich kids, black kids and kids who live in the South were the most likely to be fast-food abusers, Ross says. So there you have it. Now what do we do with it? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which published the study, what you do is call up your school board members and tell them to get rid of the soda machines. Obesity problem solved.

At least one journalist failed to see any news at all: Jane Clifford, writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune weighed in (pardon the pun) with: Stop the presses. A study published in the journal Pediatrics this week revealed the shocking news that fast food contributes to childhood obesity. Im stunned.

Katie Couric is too: I have to say, you know, I was pretty stunned when I heard that study that said one third of American children eat fast food every single day. Three of the four journalists made the same every single day assertion. But did the report actually say that? On a typical day, the report reads, 30.3% of the total sample reported consuming fast food. Its authors concluded: Consumption of fast food among children in the United States seems to have an adverse effect on dietary quality in ways that plausibly could increase risk for obesity. Perhaps the presses should be stopped, because the survey was conducted over only two days in each of the years involved, rendering the every single day claims extremely suspect.

It Does Appear To Be Hopeless

Couric made the one-third eat fast food every day comment twice on NBCs Today Show; first, when she pitched the upcoming segment: Anyway, coming up in this half-hour, fast food nation. A study released just this week shows nearly a third of American kids eat fast food every single day, leading to an extra six pounds a year. That statement included the six pounds assertion as fact, though it is not backed by any actual data, as she seemed to imply, but is merely speculation by the reports authors.

Couric interviewed Bob Greene, author of Get With The Program, who had the temerity to suggest that its up to us to exercise judgment even when buying fast food: I never saw fast food as a big problem, Greene said. It's our choices that are the problem. If we start choosing healthier, the restaurant industry will start offering healthier choices. Ah, the old they just give us what we want chestnut.

Couric wasnt buying: And sometimes, though, there are a lot of misconceptions about the fast food industry, she said. Some people think well, they're offering things like salads and wraps. So it's OK to--to eat more fast food these days, but you say it is a case of buyer beware, that sometimes these things can be misleading? Those devilishly clever fast food mavens; just when were convinced we can eat all we want of the health food theyre selling, Couric dispels our illusions and returns to reality:

Couric: What about asking for the salad in a bowl though? Because I know that fast food restaurants are now more willing to accommodate consumers. So if you did ask for it in a bowl, would that be a healthier choice?
Mr. Greene: Yeah.
Couric: Obviously?
Mr. Greene: Yeah. A lot of people don't realize that the fast food industry will accommodate your--your needs, so if you...
Couric: So have it your way.

When Greene suggests customers take the initiative and remove the most calorie-intensive ingredients from the salad in the interest of fighting obesity, Courics response illustrates perfectly what the industry is up against: And then it's like eating cardboard. But anyway....

Even When Its Not Involved, Fast Foods Still To Blame

It would appear that fast food doesnt stand a chance. In a story about a man who lost 171 pounds, Jon Frankel on CBSs Early Show of January 6 had the following exchange with Fred Anderson, author of From Chunk to Hunk.

Frankel: At your max, you were what?
Anderson: Three hundred and seventy-one pounds; and that was at my highest weight.
Frankel: It was May of 2000. Fred was battling diabetes, and couldn't walk a block without resting. Then on TV he saw a fellow diabetic have a limb amputated. Cold turkey, Fred stopped eating sugar.
Anderson: What I did was I made a mental image of the person I wanted to be, what I wanted to look like, what I wanted to be able to do physically, and then I just started living the way I thought that person would live.
Frankel: Now it's fruit, meat and grains instead of fast food.

Anderson never mentioned fast food during the interview, and a look at his web page reveals a total absence of any reference to fast food as contributing to his initial obesity. Frankel and many other journalists seem reflexive in their willingness to assume fast food is the culprit where obesity is concerned.

Well, At Least American Kids Think Theyre The Fattest

Also influencing the news was a study that found US teenagers were the most obese in the world. CNNs Anderson Cooper sounded the alarm on the January 5 edition of 360 Degrees: A new study has some dramatic news. Teenagers in the U.S. have higher obesity rates than teens in 14 other industrialized countries, including Germany and France. Now, this study found that among American 15-year-olds, 15 percent of girls and nearly 14 percent of boys were obese. 31 percent of American girls and 28 percent of boys were at least overweight. The contributing factor is pretty much what you would expect, fast food and sedentary life styles. Unsurprisingly, that explanation was based on a statement by one of the reports authors; it was not a conclusion of the report.

The Press Enterprise in Riverside California provided more details: Teenagers in the United States have higher rates of obesity than those in 14 other industrialized countries, a study of nearly 30,000 youngsters age 13 and 15 found. The findings are based on school questionnaires given to youngsters in the 15 countries in 1997 and 1998.
The article contained this revelation: On the international scale, Lithuania had the lowest obesity rates in the institute's study. That's probably because Lithuania has fewer fast-food restaurants and its teens have less money to buy snacks and fast food, [co-author Mary] Overpeck [of the U.S. Maternal and Child Health Bureau] said.

The Press Enterprise is, unfortunately, not alone in the media in finding perfectly credible Overpecks unsubstantiated opinion that Lithuanias dearth of overweight teens is entirely explained by a fast food deficit.

Heres the link!

The San Francisco Chronicle did some creative linking of its own. After venting about how the American Academy of Pediatricians had discovered selling soft drinks in schools was bad for childrens health, the newspaper offered this: In-school consumption appears to be linked to other unhealthy eating habits as well. The academy statement coincided this week with a report in the journal Pediatrics showing that fully one third of all young people age 19 and younger eat fast food every day, contributing to the surge of overweight and obese children. The amount of fast food consumed by children has increased fivefold since 1970. An international survey released this week showed that teenagers in the United States have higher rates of obesity than those in 14 other industrialized countries, including France and Germany. There you have it: First schools hook kids on soda; then McDonalds, Burger King, et al turn them into fast food junkies; or is that junk food addicts?

Clearly Theyre On The Road To Perdition; But Is That The Same One Third?

The San Jose Mercury News had this to say: One-third of U.S. youngsters eat fast food on any given day. Their parents are abdicating their responsibility to raise healthy children as surely as if they were handing them a pack of cigarettes. It seems inconceivable in a nation whose parents wouldn't dream of letting their children get into a car without buckling their safety belts that they would then not think twice about heading for the nearest fast-food restaurant. What do you expect?

The results are predictable: Teenagers in the United States have higher rates of obesity and a greater tendency, in general, to be overweight than those in 14 other industrialized countries, according to a study released last week by the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen, Denmark. Congratulations, America. We're No. 1.

The Mercury News may be unaware, but the vast majority of scientists completely reject the idea of equating fast food and cigarettes.

Dont Tread On Me?

But at least one community has made the logical connection: There are concerns involving the obesity epidemic, reports the Boston Globe, and the health consequences of making fast food more accessible in Scituate, town Planning Board Member Mark Fenton said. Prohibiting fast food establishments also would offer some level of protection to mom-and-pop shops that make up the backbone of Scituate's business community, he said. And, please pass the apple pie.

Brian Sullivan, chairman of Scituate's Zoning Board of Appeals, the Globe reports, said he would prefer not to have fast food restaurants in town, but he has reservations about the constitutionality of a ban. Liberal reporters may grow apoplectic over what they see as the Justice Departments trampling of our rights in pursuit of the war on terror; we wonder if we can count on the media to defend us should the need arise to shred the Constitution in pursuit of a good war on obesity.

Are Fast Food Portions To Blame? Tax 'Em!

Kerry Neville wrote in the Chicago Tribune, that Perhaps nowhere is the increased size of foods more evident than at fast-food restaurants. For emphasis, Neville adds: Supersizing burgers, fries and drinks may cost just pennies extra from your pocket, but much more in terms of your waistline. For example, turning a Wendy's Classic Double with Cheese into an Old Fashioned Meal Combo, which includes fries and a drink, costs [only] an additional $1.57--and 600 calories. Perhaps if we make it just a little more expensive.

Many researchers believe that America's weight epidemic may be due more to how much we eat, than what we eat, Neville concludes. Now, theres a report wed like to see the media cover.

-- Paul F. Stifflemire, Jr.