The Big Mac and the banana split were both invented in our area, illustrating how much Pittsburghers have always loved fast food. But does fast food love us?
In 2017, the Allegheny County Health Department released data on fast food restaurants in the county. The health department defines fast food as chain restaurants without a liquor license, whether local or national, having one or more locations in the area. According to that data, there are more than 150 different chains operating in the county, give or take a few. Fast food establishments come and go. Does anybody remember Winky’s, Sandy’s, or Church’s Fried Chicken?
Nevertheless, fast food has become a staple in the American diet. According to the website, in 2004 Americans spent $187 billion on fast food, and that sum has increased every year since until spending topped $299 billion in 2018. Along with our increased consumption of fast food our waistlines have also increased. In 2020, the U.S. Obesity rate exceeded 40 percent. While we may want to blame fast food for our fat woes, correlation does not always equal causation. There are many factors to consider when it comes to our diet and health.
As America has grown more affluent and more women entered the workforce, people came to embrace the ease and convenience of hitting the drive-through after work in contrast to moms in the 1950s who stayed at home and cooked less appealing palate pleasers like liver and onions or tuna and noodles.
Also, the confusion over what we should eat has not helped. In 1992 the first food pyramid was introduced, which advised Americans to limit fats and consume 6-11 servings of carbohydrates. Experts have been tweaking the food pyramid ever since and coming out with the “MyPlate” dietary guidelines in 2010, which cuts way back on carbs and doesn’t even have a category for healthy fats, which experts say are crucial for heart health.
According to a 2008 article by Ann F. La Berge that appeared in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, one thing occurred that helped to increase weight gain:
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Prevention’s dominant diet recommendation was the low-fat, high complex-carbohydrate diet, labeled the Prevention diet. Prevention writers recommended this diet for both heart health and weight loss, because they assumed that a low-fat diet was low-calorie, and hence would promote weight loss. This long-standing association of low fat with low calorie would soon be upended, however, as the food industry flooded the market with low-fat—but fattening—foods. In many of these foods, sugar replaced fat so that low fat became high calorie.
Who doesn’t remember binging on Snackwell Low Fat cookies when they debuted—they were low-fat after all and good for us, or so we were told. Turns out many food manufacturers took out the fat and replaced it with sugar. According to the Diabetes Council, America tops the world in sugar consumption with the average American consuming 126.4 grams of sugar a day. In 1915, the average person consumed 17.5 pounds of sugar a year. As of 2011, it has risen to an astronomical 150 pounds per year.
Increased sugar consumption has been devastating for the health of Americans. According to an article in Harvard Health Publishing from Harvard Medical School called “The Sweet Danger of Sugar” this sweet substance is deleterious to health as Dr. Frank Hu explained: “The effects of added sugar intake — higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease — are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Hu.
Excessive sugar is terrible for our health, yet studies have shown that it can be as addictive as cocaine making us want to consume more. Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist and market researcher in the 1970s discovered the “bliss point.” He learned that if a food contained the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat, that food would optimize the human brain’s pleasure experience, coining the term “bliss point.” Studies have shown that sugar stimulates the same part of the brain that cocaine, methamphetamines, nicotine, morphine and addictive drugs do. So, sugar addiction can be real.
Food companies know that and have increased the sugar content in their products to keep you coming back for more. A tablespoon of ketchup has four grams of sugar, which is more than the sugar in a chocolate chip cookie. Read food labels, and you will be astonished to see that added sugar has been put into so many foods—some you would never believe like spaghetti sauce or even some frozen vegetables.
So, are fast food companies the major contributor to our obesity and health problems? No, but they can be a factor. So, are fast food companies the major contributor to our obesity and health problems? No, but they can be a factor. When McDonalds debuted back in the 1950s, the restaurant offered a single patty hamburger on a bun and a 7- ounce Coke. Today, we have double Big Macs and large cokes that contain 80 grams of sugar, which equals to 19.2 teaspoons of sugar. When recommendations that you should get no more than between 6 to 9 teaspoons added sugar per day, that’s exorbitant.
To their credit, many fast food chains have added healthier choices to their menu, such as salads and unsweetened drinks, and that is the key to our health—choices. As Americans have abandoned dining at home more often for the convenience of fast food, we have also chosen to eat unhealthy meals contributing to our poor health. Like any other establishment, fast food restaurants are in the business to make money. So sure, they will gladly super-size that for you, but, just as the caveat emptor, or buyer beware, adage applies to buying a car or a microwave oven, that adage also applies when it comes to purchasing and consuming food.
Consumers benefit when there are clear nutritional guidelines and are equipped with information. Knowing what is in the food that is on a restaurant’s menu can help consumers to make informed choices. That is only the first part. Knowing something and acting on that knowledge is the second part of the equation, and sometimes it is difficult to resist the extra-large fries when your brain and taste buds are screaming for them.

Written by: Janice Lane Palko