Should businesses like McDonald’s be blamed for overweight Americans?

The United States of America is notorious for the high percentage of overweight and obese people in its populace.  The fad of fast-food chains is identified as a chief culprit behind this worrying trend, which other lifestyle factors are also attributed a share of the blame.  For example, “Americans forked over $110 billion to fast-food restaurants in 2002 alone. These restaurants report that half of their sales are now at the drive-by window— a high volume of backseat or dashboard dining that reflects the reality of today’s hurried lifestyles and poses a threat to healthy eating.” (Dalton, 2004, p.92)

There are concerns on the nutrition front as well, as meals offered by McDonald’s and other fast-food joints are very high in calorie content.  They also contain excessive amounts of saturated fat and are low on essential nutrients like fiber, calcium and vitamins.  It is this despairing situation that author Eric Schlosser captures in his controversial book Fast Food Nation, which exposes the fast-food industry’s lack of moral responsibility as it endeavors to reel in the youngest, most vulnerable consumers. (Dalton, 2004, p.94)

The debate rages between critics of fast-food culture and those who are its loyal patrons.  The issue came to a head when a group of teenagers from New York sued McDonald’s in 2003, “blaming the fast-food giant for their obesity and weight-related medical conditions…their case provided ample fodder in the debate over personal responsibility versus social responsibility for causing and curbing fatness.” (Dalton, 2004, p.92)  Judge Sweet said the plaintiffs, including a 14-year-old girl who stands 4-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds,

“failed to show that customers were unaware that eating too many Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets and Egg McMuffins could be unhealthy.  This opinion is guided by the principle that legal consequences should not attach to the consumption of hamburgers and other fast-food fare unless consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating such food.” (Baker, 2003, p.1)

In other words, if consumers know the potential negative health consequences of eating in fast-food outlets like McDonald’s, they cannot blame the latter if they “choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald’s products.” (Baker, 2003, p.1)  Although the U.S. district court judge dismissed this group action case, upon recognizing some of the valid points the plaintiffs raised, he asked the case to be suitably amended and re-presented again.  This implies that the issue cannot simply be read in dichotomous black and white terms.  While the plight of the plaintiffs in the aforementioned case is understandable, one should also ask other important questions such as

“what kind of parents would let their kids eat McDonald’s food every day? What forces are at work in the marketplace—not to mention schools and the media—to push aside healthier fare? Why are McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets so available and attractive to so many Americans?  Other salient questions include: How do the food and restaurant industries target youth (a vulnerable social group) through clever marketing? And what opportunities for outdoor play and recreation are missing from these kids’ lives that make them flock to a McDonald’s PlayPlace?” (Dalton, 2004, p.93)

Hence, it is not a straightforward case of restaurants such as McDonald’s directly causing weight and health issues to customers.  One has to include all surrounding questions to the analytic framework in order to come up with robust solutions to the problem.  This way a positive social transformation toward general well-being could be achieved.  (Stutts,, 2011, p.52)

Works Cited:

Dalton, Sharron. Our Overweight Children:  What Parents, Schools, and Communities Can Do to Control the Fatness Epidemic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

Baker, Chris, “Judge Doesn’t Swallow Suit about Fat Children; McDonald’s Not to Blame, He Rules.” The Washington Times 23 Jan. 2003: A01.

Stutts, Mary Ann, Gail M. Zank, Karen H. Smith, and Sally A. Williams. “Nutrition Information and Children’s Fast Food Menu Choices.” Journal of Consumer Affairs 45.1 (2011): 52+.