Lately, having done a small amount of work with McDonald’s NZ, I’ve been pondering the place of takeaway foods in our diet. Like them or loathe them, they’re here to stay.
A recent evaluation of the zoning strategy employed by authorities in Los Angeles, banning new fast food establishments in order to address the excessive obesity problem in South Los Angeles, indicates that strategies like this are unlikely to achieve their goals. The main reasons for this failure are outlined at the end of this posting.
There is an assumption both in the US and NZ that so-called “toxic food environments” exist, in which poor and minority neighbourhoods are overrun with fast-food chains, causing higher obesity rates.
While the majority of fast food may not be nutrient dense, it is conceivably less obesogenic than food eaten at full-service, sit-down restaurants in the US. This is because it is less calorie-dense, due to greater portion control and a shorter “food exposure time”. In American sit-down restaurants the serving sizes were found to be 2-4 times greater than recommended, and in this environment people are more likely to also order dessert and be topped up with free sugary drinks throughout their stay.
There are some big differences between the US and NZ. Most obviously, our much maligned intake of soft drinks does not come anywhere near the gallons consumed per capita in the US – especially by teenagers and young adults.
I propose that the great kiwi institution of fish and chips – still the country’s most eaten takeaway, is probably more obesogenic than many fast food chains. A piece of battered fish and standard scoop of chips from one of these places is enough to feed my whole family – for several days sometimes!
But most importantly, as the L.A. study illustrates, we just have too much food around us all the time. Establishments providing meals are only one small part of a food environment where it’s possible to indulge our taste buds ceaselessly if we so desire. In my opinion it’s this constant nibbling (or scoffing) that’s by far the biggest problem – even more so than what’s being eaten.
Findings of the L.A. zoning evaluation study:
1. Upon analysis there were actually fewer fast food outlets in South LA per capita than in other parts of L.A.
2. There was a much higher density of small grocery stores (I guess similar to our dairies) in South L.A. compared to other parts of L.A., and a lower density of large supermarkets.
3. Discretionary calorie intake, higher in South L.A. than other parts of L.A., was mainly from foods and beverages widely sold in non-food establishments as well (eg, vending machines, car washes, bookstores, laundromats, offices, etc).
4. The proportion of the population having the recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings per day, or getting the recommended amount of exercise was no different in South L.A. compared with other parts of L.A.
5. People in South L.A. were more likely to walk or take public transport to do food shopping, while this is unreported in other parts of L.A.