March 17th, 2003

Over the lips, past the gums, watch out body, here it comes! Of the 15 leading causes of death in the United States, six are directly associated with diet: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and hypertension. Research clearly states that diet affects health.

Living in the fast-food generation doesn’t help. Quick-serve meals have become favorites for many Americans. But some of these foods contain up to 1,000 calories, 1,800 milligrams of sodium and 60 grams of fat in one serving. That's half or more of the recommended intake for the entire day. Although fast-food restaurants have expanded their menus to include lower-fat, heart-healthy items, statistics show that most consumers continue choosing higher-fat/higher-calorie items.

“Some people need fast, but fast isn’t always healthy,” said Great River Medical Center registered dietitian Lynda Graham-Murray, R.D., L.D., Nutrition Services. “The time problem is only a perception. People can retrain their thinking and cooking habits to balance today’s busy lifestyles.”

Graham-Murray said people would be surprised if they compared the amount of time it takes to prepare a meal compared to getting in the car, driving to a restaurant and waiting to order their food. They also would be amazed at the difference in cost.

The cost of excessive fast-food dining, however, must be measured in terms of health consequences, too. In December 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that obesity kills an estimated 300,000 Americans each year and costs $117 billion in health-related costs. Now, people are blaming restaurants for making them fat.

Last July, a New York City lawyer filed a lawsuit against four fast-food restaurant chains, blaming them for his client’s obesity and related health problems. At 5-foot-10, the plaintiff weighs 270 pounds. He has had two heart attacks. He also has diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He ate at fast-food restaurants four or five times a week and claims that the restaurants never explained what he was eating. Since the early 1970s, however, fast-food restaurants have provided nutrition information for all items served in their stores to customers who ask for it. Opponents of this lawsuit point out that restaurants offer choices and that consumers must be responsible for their own actions.

“Kids prefer to eat what they’re used to,” Graham-Murray said. “If they eat a lot of fast food, that’s what they’re going to favor. Children also tend to eat better when they are involved in the food preparation. Family meal preparation also is a time to share the day’s events and enjoy each other’s company. That goes for cleanup, too.”

Eating habits – negative and positive – are likely to carry on into adulthood. It’s possible to modify eating habits, but helping children make good nutrition choices now can lead to a healthier generation in the future.

Other healthy-eating tips:

  • Think of a balanced diet as something to be achieved over the course of a day or week, not in terms of just one meal. Make occasional meals at fast-food restaurants a treat instead of a habit.
  • Take five to 10 minutes to make a meal plan before heading to the supermarket. Keep it flexible – matching meals to specific days can be frustrating when plans change.
  • Remember that fresh is best. Whenever possible, cook your meals from scratch to control the amount of fat, sodium, sugar and calories.
  • When cooking ground beef or other meats, cook extra and freeze it for another quick meal.
  • Use convenience foods if necessary. Supermarkets carry precooked meats and frozen chopped onions for quick ingredients.