The Fast (Fat!) Food Chains

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A lawyer in the United States, Sam Hirsch, sued McDonald's on behalf of his obese clients. Of the tobacco companies that had been sued, he says "you can't stop tobacco from being unhealthy, but you can make food less unhealthy." Obviously, he was referring to the health dangers of what many people consider junk foods, with high cholesterol and fats, like hamburgers, eggs, fries, etc.

Nobody thought the suits filed in the United States by families against the giant tobacco firms on behalf of their dead loved ones who succumbed to smoking-related diseases, like lung cancer, would succeed. But they did.

Will Sam Hirsch and the other lawyers soon to follow his footsteps make their case in court, and prosper? Having heard of a great number of ludicrous lawsuits that have won, I won't be surprised if Atty. Hirsch wins his case.

But I have to admit that, to some degree, I do agree with one essence of this suit: that these food chains and other purveyors of food have the social obligation to make their products less unhealthy, or, better yet, as healthy as possible for the consumers, especially for the children. These youngsters are still developing habits and lifestyle that are essential for their future.

Apparently concerned with the screaming health-conscious consumers, and of the future legal consequences for food companies, the largest food giant in the USA, Kraft, has decided to "set the pace, launching a sweeping global overhaul of the way it creates, packages, and promotes its foods." Kraft announces its plan to reduce the portion size, fat and calories of its food products. This move is expected to have a worldwide impact on other food companies and consumers around the globe.

McDonald's, for instance, has already scheduled to test its Happy Meal this summer, replacing the popular but fat-filled and deadly French fries, with a bag of fresh, sliced fruits. More and more restaurants are having a salad bar. Fish is becoming a popular option. There is today a greater awareness of the health benefit of staying away from high cholesterol foods, like red meats (beef, pork, etc) and eggs, and concentrating on fish, vegetables, fruits and high-fiber foods, as the mainstay of our diet.

A chart from the American Obesity Association of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published in USA Today showed the following prevalence of obese children ages 6 to 11: From 1976-1980, 7%; from 1988-1994, 11%; from 1999-2000, 15.3%. The incidence of obesity among 12-19: From 1976-1980, 5%; 1988-1994, 11%; and 1999-2000, 15.5%.

There is no question in my mind that healthy lifestyle must start from the crib, because prevention is the key to health. Children, as young as five or six years of age, who died of accident or disease, have shown on autopsies to have a thin lining of cholesterol plaques in their arteries (brain, heart, abdomen, etc). We, parents, must be doing something wrong for these youngsters, at those tender ages, to have arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) already. This is the essential message in the book I am writing, entitled Let's Stop Killing Our Children, an anthology of cardiovascular and other diseases, with emphasis on prevention starting from the crib, written in layman's term. The book is to be published in the United States and is scheduled to come out next year.

Diet is a very significant factor in the development of arteriosclerosis, the condition that leads to heart attack and stroke, and to the aging process in general. The greater and more advanced the hardening of the arteries is, the faster a person ages, not only in years but in looks. When the arteries supplying nutrients and oxygen to the skin are narrowed or blocked by arteriosclerosis, the skin loses its collagen, turgor, elasticity, and youthful look. This leads to wrinkle formation, thinning and loosening of the skin. This is why high-fiber, low-cholesterol (no red meats and eggs) diet, consisting of fish, vegetables and fruits, is highly recommended, if we are to slow down the process of arteriosclerosis in our body. The less arteriosclerosis, the healthier and younger we look and feel.

The other part of the health equation is the abstinence from tobacco, a substance that has been found to speed up hardening of the arteries, not to mention its direct poisonous effects on lungs and practically on all organs in the body. A very common cause of deadly cancers, tobacco must be avoided. Secondhand (passive) smoking has been found to be even deadlier.

Daily exercise is another factor. It not only tones and conditions our body for cardiovascular fitness, but also "neutralizes" some of the bad effects of the unhealthy food we eat or the bad habits we have. Physical activities also reduce stress and put our mind on a more positive frame. The beneficial effect of daily exercises on the heart is astonishing.

Monitoring and maintaining our weight to as close to our "ideal" weight as possible is fundamental. Persons who are overweight are more prone to illnesses because obesity increases the rate and degree of arteriosclerosis and also weakens the immune system. As a result, complications and risk of surgery among patients who are overweight are greater than those with normal weight. The recovery rate is also slower among the obese.

Studies have shown that people who control their calorie intake and who leave the dining table with less than full stomach live longer. Eating to full satiety three meals a day obviously impacts negatively on longevity. So, it is good to be "still a little hungry" after each meal.

The cola drinks and other pop beverages are really not the best for the body. Filtered water, milk, fruit juices, green tea (instead of coffee) are certainly healthier drink alternatives. A glass of red wine with dinner is healthy for most.

As far as vegetables and fruits are concerned, these food items contain significant amounts of cardioprotective and anti-cancer ingredients called antioxidants. The roughage they provide also reduces the risk for the development of colon cancer.

Fish, as a healthier substitute protein for red meats and eggs, contains Omega 3 fatty acids that keep the blood thinner (preventing blood clots and slowing down hardening of the arteries), and help minimize the onset of heart attack and stroke. The highest concentration of cholesterol and fats are in red meats, like pork and beef, and eggs (the yellow yoke). Fish "oil" is the healthier fat for our body. It protects the cardiovascular system.

Finally, genetics. This does play a role in arteriosclerosis, but it is noteworthy that only one in 500 people has the genetic defect that leads to familial hyperlipidemia. It is, therefore, obvious that only one in 500 has the "excuse" to have this abnormally high level of cholesterol. The 499 of us, who have no excuse at all, simply abuse ourselves to death.

Children of parents who had heart attack and/or stroke do not necessarily have to "inherit" these diseases. We now have enough scientific data to show that if these children live a healthier lifestyle than their parents---doing daily exercises, watching their diet and weight, abstaining from tobacco and excessive alcohol, taking time out for rest and relaxation, and managing their stress effectively---they do not have to have the same fate as their infirm parents. In short, the environmental factors and personal discipline (a healthy lifestyle) can greatly outweigh the negative effects of bad genes.

While genetics play a role, our fate is not sealed at birth, and what becomes of us is basically in our hands and depends to a large degree on what we do and fail to do. When it comes to our health, science has shown that "the ball is almost always in our court." What direction it will take for ourselves and for our children rests on our own choices and decisions.

In fairness to the tobacco and food industries, we, the consumers, should share the greater part of the blame. Nobody is holding a gun against our head, forcing us to smoke cigarettes or to eat high-cholesterol or junk foods. The choice is entirely ours. And we ought to know better.

©2003Raoul R. Diez, M.A.O.D.