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America’s Dire Need for a Smarter Fast Food Culture

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

By: John Blegen

For millions of Americans, the option of a carefully prepared, nutritionally varied, and conscientious meal is simply unrealistic. Commuting and abysmal traffic loads often keep the average worker from getting home until well after nightfall. Upon finally reaching home and over-exhausted from a nine-hour shift, who can blame a person for balking at the prospect of washing, prepping, and then hovering over a pot of broccoli, or exacting the careful attention required of a fillet of salmon (not to mention the greasy cleanup afterwards)? Those few hours left to unwind after a long day are the only respite many have throughout the work week, and to fill this time with prepping food (which is more work) is to tempt a meltdown.

No wonder so many Americans turn to fast food as an easy solution. The term itself, ‘fast food,’ was first recognized by the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1951. Although this style of eating has its roots as far back as Ancient Rome and 12th century China, the rise of fast food in the form of the rowdy street vendor can be traced back to the post–World War II economic boom of 1950s America. Throughout the 20th century, this trend increased steadily, culminating in a fever pitch of unhealthy eating habits that has resulted in the dire state of the public health and wellbeing we see now.

Today, it is estimated that 37 percent of Americans eat fast food on a given night. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, this overconsumption aligns with growing epidemics of obesity and rising levels of type 2 diabetes. Equally alarming is the CDC’s report on vegetable and fruit consumption: only one in every 10 Americans consume the recommended portions of fruits and vegetables each day. Compare this to the U.K., where a still troubling, but considerably better, three in every 10 adults eat recommended portions, and this health crisis takes on a decidedly cultural font.

According to a 2014 study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, nearly three in every four American men and three in five American women are obese or overweight. This should come as no surprise, but as a refresher—obesity is linked with increasing the risk of many serious diseases and conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, the risk of stroke, osteoarthritis, and a higher mortality rate in general. Obesity has also been linked with causing and worsening depression.

Among developed nations, it is absurd that such a crisis even exists—but particularly in America, where bad eating has taken on an obscene, almost patriotic prestige, you’ll be hard pressed to find a food commercial promoting anything less than the most vile of eating options, sometimes on par with a slow poison (2,300 calorie pasta bowls at Olive Garden to name one …). Usually, the best a person can hope for is a slice of lettuce and a shriveled tomato between a brick-sized burger and bun. Although such marketing is often laughable, it becomes downright sinister when we pay attention to who is being targeted.

Comparing overall trends in fast food advertising, the Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut, in their January 2019 report, found a clearly skewed emphasis on advertisements targeting minority youths. In particular, findings showed that while overall spending on TV advertisements by 32 of the largest American fast food corporations declined by 4 percent from 2013–2017, there was a 50 percent increase in spending on advertisements targeting African-American children and teens. This agenda has existed for a while, as noted in a 2014 Washington Post article titled, ‘The disturbing ways that fast food chains disproportionately target black kids.’

While everyone should eat varied foods, especially vegetables and protein, this especially applies to the youth, who need the nutrients to grow to their full potential. Also, the effects of poor eating habits on mental health can be amplified by teenagers already dealing with the stresses that such an age entails. Combined with the stresses of economic woe, these tactics can exacerbate a life’s worth of hardship. It seems these facts are lost on fast food chains, who would rather plant the seed of dependency early.

If this line of reasoning sounds familiar, it might be because it has already played out and been well exposed on the national stage. Tobacco marketing firms were lambasted in the '80s and '90s for explicitly targeting youth smokers with their campaigns. Joe Camel, in particular, was singled out as an egregious example. The cartoonish figure was a blatant attempt at portraying a devastating product as something lighthearted.

What difference is there between the tobacco industry's marketing practices and those of the fast food industry? Both stress reaching young consumers despite their product’s long-lasting and devastating effects on personal wellbeing. Both disproportionately advertise in low-income communities. Both use mascots … Yet, while cigarettes are typically perceived as something vile, the same does not apply for fast food.  

This issue of perception might be explained by the necessity of the latter. Fast food is a consequence of the modern, often exploitative, relationship between the worker and work, which is particularly flagrant in the United States. Working nine-to-five shifts, five days a week, simply do not allow for enough time to prepare an attention-sensitive dinner. In other words, while cigarettes are something superficial, fast food is an inherent aspect of the wage labor system. It is the logical end of having too little time in between work.

In this regard, fast food does not have to be such a negative thing. It can help vast numbers of struggling parents bring a speedy dinner home to their children. If not for its poor health attributes, it could prove to be a boon to the working class, essential to the often-exhausting reality of modern wage labor.

In recent years, something of a shift to this effect has begun. Better fast food restaurants, such as Panera, Chipotle and Subway, are growing in popularity. Even traditionally ‘bad’ restaurants, such as McDonalds, have adopted healthier menu options due to mass criticism and negative press. This trend is promising and reflects an overall increase in health conscientiousness.

In fact, the whole zeitgeist of modern food culture seems to bode a much-needed shift toward more nutrient-rich meals. This trend is summarized by Fiona Dyer, Consumer Analyst at GlobalData: “The shift toward plant-based foods is being driven by millennials, who are most likely to consider the food source, animal welfare issues, and environmental impacts when making their purchasing decisions.”

The entire dynamic surrounding how we eat is evolving, and for the better. Still, change is happening slowly. Waiting for the millennial generation to overtake the baby boomer’s negative effect on the food industry is an idle task; instead drastic change is needed. Nowhere does this truth become more apparent than in observing the fast food industry’s disastrous imprint on the environment.

From start to finish—from the actual mass raising of enough cattle and livestock to satisfy the food industry’s needs, to the plastic packaging they use to sell those foods (which account for “an estimated 40 percent of all litter”)—the fast food industry’s economic imprint is as egregious as they come.

Furthermore, as the FAIRR (Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return) research group states in their February 2019 report: “[The Livestock production complex] has largely come at the expense of widespread natural capital degradation.” In other words, not only is the livestock production cycle a major driver in greenhouse gas emissions (16.5 percent of total GHG emissions in 2010), it also, from an economic standing, simply unsustainable. With “70–80 percent of all agricultural land being used for pasture and growing crops for animal feed,” there is simply not enough land to satisfy meat and dairy trends, the demand of which, due to rising populations, “is expected to rise 79 percent between 2006 and 2050, and beef demand by 95 percent.’ This is all without even mentioning the industry's notoriously abominable treatment of animals, and its flagrant use of pesticides that damage bee populations and spoil air and water quality.

Despite these grim findings, any criticism of the meat and dairy industries, and suggestions of curbing this glutinous trend, have been met with a less-than-thoughtful response from the conservative sphere. The bulk of this ire has been directed at the measures outlined in New York Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, Green New Deal. This proposal, unbinding and broadly put, merely commits to working with farmers “to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions … as much as is technologically feasible.” A direction of this sort is unequivocally needed. For land management reasons, as is shown in the FAIRR report, an agricultural infrastructure focused on producing protein-rich vegetables, such as beans, lentils, broccoli, etc., which will go straight to human plants rather than the wasteful input of animal feed, is needed.

Nonetheless, a revulsion from government proposals aimed at influencing the food industry (despite a century of subsidizing dairy farms—a textbook example of corporate socialism) is understandable. Dystopian nightmares, like those portrayed in the 1973 film Soylent Green, come to mind, as well as the oft-repeated image of the cattle rancher, leather knit and dust bedazzled, endemic to the American fetish. Republicans, emphatically, do not want liberals messing with their meat. For whatever else they are, they are citizens too, in a democracy, whose sentiments should be respected.

I believe a way around this minefield—of emotions versus economic necessity—is to begin with curbing the fast food industry’s wasteful treatment of livestock. There is nothing wrong with grilling a steak or a burger in one’s backyard, in the lighthearted company of family and friends. There is a sense of ceremony about this. As the ancient tribesman honored the sacrificial lamb, so too does the Texan his T-bone.

What is not tolerable, however, and downright indignant to the human race, the planet, and our animal neighbors is the fast food industry’s wanton rearing and misuse of livestock. There is no ceremony about a Big Mac. A body only eats such a contraption for the sake of practicality. If the patty were replaced with a bean or cauliflower burger, potentially much richer in protein and nutrient contents, and more sensitive to strained land management, I doubt anyone would mind, especially considering it still allows for a planet for us to live on. And with recent advances in lab-grown meat, the fast food industry going meatless has never been a more attainable goal.

To achieve environmental progress in the agricultural industry and to appease the wrath of our more conservative elements, I believe a caveat in the Green New Deal could be helpful and that these anti-meat-and-dairy initiatives should be especially concerning the fast food industry. Such a policy has another benefit: it may improve our country’s abysmal health records. A bean and lentil burger offers much more nutritional content than a red meat one; it also tastes surprisingly delicious.


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