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The Hidden Cost of Cheap Meal Deals

The Hidden Cost of Cheap Meal Deals

Families struggling to make ends meet, especially around the holidays, are understandably drawn to cheap meal deals—the latest being McDonald’s selling double cheeseburgers for 50 cents as part of their “SZN of Sharing” promotion.

But these deals come with a hidden cost that society isn’t doing nearly enough to combat—an obesity epidemic that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Obesity is an expensive disease, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating the annual medical cost of obesity in the United States at nearly $173 billion. Medical costs for obese adults were $1,861 higher than medical costs for people with healthy weight, according to the CDC.

While obesity impacts all populations, it disproportionately impacts the Black community. Non-Hispanic Black adults have the highest prevalence of obesity at 49%, compared to non-Hispanic White adults at 41% and non-Hispanic Asian adults at 16%. Black and brown children also suffer higher rates of obesity than other demographics.

In early December, the American Medical Women’s Association released a list of recommendations for combating obesity, including nutritional counseling and insurance coverage for FDA-approved weight loss medications.

“The U.S. is one of the only countries with a high rate of obesity and no official policies to address the disease,” AMWA member Fatima Cody Stanford said as part of the recommendations. “As one of the most prevalent chronic diseases, obesity affects 42.4% of U.S. adults and 19.7% of children. It impacts nearly every organ system and can lead to over 200 other chronic diseases.”

As a Black public health researcher born and raised in Chicago and focused on Black youth obesity in Chicago, I’m called to improve health outcomes by asking: What must be done? Obesity in childhood is linked to obesity in adulthood. Addressing obesity in Black youth should be prioritized.

It’s not enough to simply promote a healthy lifestyle as the ideal. We must also make healthy lifestyles accessible, by creating where people can find and afford healthy food, exercise safely and frequently, and be protected from toxic stressors.

Social determinants of health—conditions in the environment where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship and age—greatly influence obesity.

I often see this play out in the Black community, where food insecurity—often linked to obesity— is higher than the national average. Researchers cite a “resource scarcity” theory to explain the link between obesity and food insecurity, meaning people who struggle to afford regular, healthy meals often eat high-calorie, inexpensive foods that decrease energy and exercise and increase body fat.

Black communities are also disproportionately affected by food deserts, which makes it difficult for residents to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.

Meanwhile, young people are being bombarded with campaigns promoting junk food. The food industry spends close to $2 billion each year to market food and beverages to children and adolescents, according to the Journal of the American Heart Association, and more than 80% of that is spent advertising foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium.

It’s unreasonable and ineffective to simply expect young people and their families to make the sorts of lifestyle choices that would lead to lower obesity rates. Community leaders, policymakers and healthcare providers should take the lead in making sure healthy lifestyle choices are actually available to all families, regardless of their zip code or demographic.

I would like to see this issue addressed in Chicago’s upcoming mayoral race, as well as from  national policymakers. Our children’s well-being is too important for us to look the other way while their health suffers.

While double cheeseburgers for 50 cents might curb your hunger or seem like a fun holiday treat, they should never be a replacement for nourishing food that all bodies need and deserve. Sometimes a deal is too good to be true.

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