Fast Food Is Only Part of the Picture

Fast food is often demonized as the root cause of the obesity epidemic, but a new study suggests the Western diet is more to blame.

We all love to criticize fast food. Nothing is easier than taking a quick shot at McDonald’s and its assumed role in the obesity epidemic. Even the person who downed a Big Mac for lunch is going to nod his head and say, “Um hmm” during a tirade on the detestable role of fast food on the state of American health.

But what if fast food consumption isn’t the full story? What if the rest of our diet bears more of the blame for obesity than fast food? A recent study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found exactly that. Researchers studied over 4,000 children in the United States from ages two to eighteen years. They found some surprising results.

First, only half of the children consumed fast food. That’s actually less than I expected. Next, of that fifty percent who consumed fast food, about forty percent got very little of their daily nutrition from fast food and about ten percent got a lot of their daily energy from fast food. That feels about right. That means about one-in-ten children eats mostly fast food every day. I can buy that. Finally, and most notably, fast food consumption itself was not clearly associated with obesity. However, the remainder of the child’s diet was associated with obesity. Now that sounds like crazy talk – but it’s not.

Those who did consume fast food were much more likely to eat a traditional Western diet outside the fast food restaurant. The Western diet consists of lots of refined grains, sugars, processed meat, and refined vegetable oils. This traditional Western diet may be more to blame for obesity in children than the devil and his golden arches.

However, those who shunned fast food were found to eat a more prudent diet that included more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. The study isn’t conclusive, but it seems that a prudent diet and occasional trips to Burger King may trump a standard Western diet that has never cracked the box on a Whopper. To me, this research reinforces the fact that every single decision counts in your nutrition. You can’t follow any one blanket rule, throw caution to the wind everywhere else, and expect great results. Nutrition is a big, nebulous, slippery jellyfish greased with coconut oil. It’s difficult to get your arms around it, and it doesn’t easily fit into any nice, neat little box.

The only way to ensure results is to educate yourself and make consistently smart decisions every single day. Not sometimes – every single day. But if, on occasion, one of those decisions involves Taco Bell, your progress won’t be wrecked as long as the remainder of your diet stays on track.


1. JM Poti, et al. The association of fast food consumption with poor dietary outcomes and obesity among children: is it the fast food or the remainder of the diet? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014 Jan;99(1):162-71. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071928. Epub 2013 Oct 23.

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