You may think health food wins a slam dunk over fast food by every conceivable measure. Although it’s true that health foods provide nutritional benefits and protect you from disease, for many people, they are also an expensive and less accessible option. Relatively cheap, quick-service food can be found almost everywhere, but access to a big selection of whole foods, fruits and vegetables often requires that you own a car and can travel to a supermarket or farmer’s market. In the United States, food shortages are fortunately rare, but shortages of low-priced health foods are also common.
Many foods enter the market with their producers claiming the foods have extraordinary health benefits. Touted as “superfoods,” some of these foods are costly, unusual mixes of phytochemicals packaged on the shelves of health food stores. The truly super health foods, however, are fruits, vegetables, grains and other naturally occurring foods. The National Institutes of Health Office of Research services lists fruits like kiwis, tomatoes, avocados, berries and apples; vegetables like leafy greens; fish, yogurt and tea as super health foods because they promote health benefits over and beyond being a good source of nutrients. For example, kiwis pack more vitamin C than oranges in less than 100 calories, and contain vitamin E, a rarity for fruits, so their antioxidant power can help you stave off diseases like cancer, dementia and fatty liver.
Fast Food Industry
Fast food in America is a $183 billion dollar enterprise, according to IBIS World. Several decades ago, few Americans thought of fast food as a meal, as opposed to an occasional treat. Busy schedules coupled with the unmatched convenience of fast food, however, means that fast food restaurants are serving more Americans breakfast, lunch and dinner than ever before. Researchers reporting findings from the 2005 CARDIA clinical study say that Americans’ fast food habits are detrimental to health. Even with their healthier offerings becoming more common, the typical burger-fry-soda combinations are associated with weight gain and insulin resistance. Publishing in the January 2005 issue of “The Lancet,” University of Minnesota researchers said fast food consumption is increasing American’s risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Nutrient versus Calorie Density
Health foods densely pack important nutrients — vitamins, minerals and other plant chemical — in small calorie packages. Fast food packs fewer nutrients but high amounts of calories in their relatively small combinations. You could have a lunch containing a medium sirloin steak and a baked potato for lunch, and consume about 959 calories, but you’d get copious amounts of calcium, potassium, zinc, selenium, niacin, choline, betaine and folate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With an angus-style burger and large fries at a popular fast food restaurant, you’d consume more than 1,300 calories, but very few healthful nutrients. The burger alone would supply 60 percent of you daily fat needs, 86 percent of your sodium, and the burger even contains sugar. That’s excluding the calories and sugar you’d get if you order a soda with that meal.
Price and Availability
For some, healthy foods come at a premium. If you live in an urban environment, supermarkets with fresh produce and bigger selections of health food may be further away and require you to have a car to transport groceries back to your home. Chances are, small bodegas that charge extra for the relatively few healthy items they carry as well as fast food and inexpensive take-outs, are far more accessible. People have a natural tendency to choose from foods most easily accessed in their environments, according to the 2003 report, Obesity Research. With nationwide attention on obesity and growing consumer awareness, some fast-food chains have responded by broadening their menus to include healthier options like salads, grilled meats, alternatives to french fries and bottled water.
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- National Institutes of Health Office of Research Services: Balanced Choices - Super Foods
- IBISWorld: Fast Food Restaurants
- “The Lancet"; Fast-Food Habits, Weight Gain, and Insulin Resistance (The CARDIA Study): 15-Year Prospective Analysis; Mark A. Pereira et al.; January 1-7, 2005
- USDA "Amber Waves"; Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet?; Elise Golan et al.; November 2008
- MedlinePlus: Fast Food
Angela Ogunjimi has been a prize-winning writer and editor since 1994. She was a general assignment reporter at two newspapers and a business writer at two magazines. She writes on nutrition, obesity, diabetes and weight control for a project of the National Institutes of Health. Ogunjimi holds a master's degree in sociology from George Washington University and a bachelor's in journalism from New York University.