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Global warming may be killing the planet, but fast food is killing the people who live on it. I’m not singling out McDonald’s, Burger King, or any of the many fried chicken joints as the sole source of this most modern of epidemic plagues. That’s been done, well, and documented over and over again, even after the trans-fat ban here in New York City. My definition of fast food is broader than the Big Mac. To me, “fast food” is so much more and so much worse than a fried, hormone-fed beef burger on a refined flour white-bread bun, served alongside some sort of frozen strawberry-flavored (read: high fructose corn syrup and Red Dye #40), powdered milk substance that’s passed off as a milkshake.
So what is fast food? And what’s the alternative?
Fast food is conveniently ahistorical with no modern record of health benefits. Ostensibly, fast food is what’s sold at prefab, franchised, burger joints, taco shacks, chicken pits and sub stations, but in reality, fast foods have seeped into our supermarkets and our kitchen cabinets by way of the unsubstantiated health claims they make to an unwitting public desperate to believe that non-fat, vitamin D supplemented yogurt is a healthy snack that will stave off osteoporosis and other chronic diseases. In truth, there is no evidence of this. To the contrary, we find ourselves in the midst of a well documented health crisis in this country partially brought on by the popularity of skim milk (an oft overlooked fast food, by my definition) and exacerbated by the deficiencies of vitamin D found in both processed baby formula and the breast milk of a modern mother on a low-fat diet.
Alternatively, slow foods are those ancient foods that our great-grandmothers cooked with before scientists ever even identified vitamin D. They are the foods that grow naturally on our planet and are un-fooled-around-with until a skilled chef or home cook gets her hands on them. Slow foods are real foods, like whole milk, that occur organically in nature, take more time and labor to prepare, and yes, contain shitloads of vitamins and nutrients—the ones that get all that praise for keeping us healthy. My mamma used to force-feed me carrots, not beta-carotene pills, to improve my eyesight! Carrots and other whole foods have well documented health benefits and can be transformed through mouth-watering recipes using real fruits, vegetables, meat, seeds, eggs, dairy, bread, even chocolate. Take the strawberry milkshake example for instance…
To make a milkshake, one must actually “ice” cream and blend it with milk (and in this example, berries). This process is not fast, but it can be relatively simple if one buys certified organic, whole milk (preferably from grass-fed cows, but I know that’s a luxury not everyone outside of an urban mecca like New York can easily find or afford), a great pint of vanilla ice cream from a local gelattoria you trust to use pure ingredients and old-fashioned creaming techniques, and strawberries. If you have a sweet tooth, you can throw in a spoonful of honey to help the milkshake go down. Your trusted gelattoria is even likely to feature a real berry, sip-able iced cream concoction on its own menu, if you find yourself without a blender or the ambition to cook.
But even in Manhattan it’ll cost you, both time and money, to seek out a true milkshake. Real food takes time, it often costs more, and it’s decidedly better. It’s better for your health; it’s better for our shared ecological health; I’d argue it’s better for the economy to support local vendors and increase consumer spending at shops that are environmentally responsible; it tastes better! But…it ain’t so easy on the pocketbook. That said, consumers have a choice, and those of us who are in a position to choose have an equal obligation to choose ethically—between real food that makes a substantial impact on global health or fast food that’s causing the slow death of so many among us.
Americans who subsist off the Western Industrialized Diet that consists of little more than fast food, suffer from more chronic disease linked to malnutrition than those populations around the globe that may not have high speed internet but, to their benefit, boast a custom of slow food. We could learn a lot from these people. The traditional diets of the slow food set imbue their cultures with the sort of patient cooking and ritualized eating that trade on inconvenience, but have rewarding health results. Hunters might get mauled tracking wild beasts in Mozambique, but they won’t die of obesity, as so many do in East St. Lou.
Today chronic disease is an accepted state of ill health in our society. I’m talking cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and yes, obesity. And that it is not just a byproduct of our species living longer. Guide to Healthcare Schools recognizes the need for more professionals who can assist clients with healthier eating habits, because the malnourished among us look different than they do in other parts of the world. Instead of Kate Moss on a hunger strike, undernourished Americans often look like contestants on The Biggest Loser. And they’re not all eating at the golden arches everyday. Many are eating fast food that they don’t even recognize as such.
Fast food is processed food. It’s convenience food. It’s imitation food. It’s a cheese product, a frozen dinner, an artificially-flavored, powdered milkshake. Fast foods are often packaged foods; they are the canned and boxed foods like kids’ cereals, condensed soups and low-carb, protein-fortified pasta you find down the centrally located supermarkets aisles, separated from the fresh produce and authentic protein sections off to the side of the stores. Fast foods are also breakfast bars and protein shakes that are chock full of fortified vitamins and microencapsulated nutraceuticals that convince the unknowing that they are actually a nutritious substitute for oatmeal made with whole milk, topped with a dollop of butter. They are not. They are far worse for your body. These fast foods prey on accepted (even by the FDA) statutes of “nutrionism,” or the idea that nutrients alone are responsible for all the health benefits discovered in whole foods, and can therefore be extracted from whole foods and supplemented in fast foods.
Many fast foods used to be made up of little more than refined sugar, refined flour, soy and corn products—our nation’s most harvested and heavily subsidized crops. But in our times, the processed food industry has gone one step further in their calculated deception by selling “healthy” fortified foods—adding ginseng to cola and vitamin D to skim milk, and then claiming for their products all the advantages those vitamins and nutrients provide when they’re found in their naturally occurring, organic state inside whole foods. In fact, there is no proof of this. While affluent, educated, conscientious Americans spend good money on vitamins, dietary supplements and processed foods injected with nutrients (i.e. a carton of OJ fortified with omega-3s extracted from fish!) they throw out the baby artichokes with the bath water and miss the boat on real nutrition, a.k.a. real food.
These other fast foods are also much more deceptive, if not more destructive, than the Big Mac portends, because they’re hidden inside slick packaging and clever tag lines thought up by marketing gurus who have a financial stake in keeping Big Food in Big Pharma’s back pocket. The two are inextricably bound by one’s desire to keep us sick, and the other’s pretense to make us well. I’d go so far as to argue that Big Food and Big Pharma are in big business with the Big Guy upstairs. The two industries have shaped our modern sense or mortality by feeding us foods that make us ill, followed by pills that mask the sickness and permit us to continue our addictive diets, and eventually, dole out death sentences that are as premature as they are profitable. Healthy people don’t subsist off fast food diets, and healthy patients don’t need fast medicine; it’s in the interest of both businesses to keep us buying the foods and drugs that perpetuate this cycle of chronic disease.