Deep Fried Flavor: The Connection Between Obesity and Fast Food

Savory, sweet, and sizzling… these are just a few of the qualities that pull us into the deep-fried temptation that is fast food. While at first glance the growth of public cravings for these foods may seem innocent enough, but beneath that fatty exterior is a potential to create a national health crisis of obesity in America. What role does fast food exactly play in this problem, and what is in the science that keeps us coming back for more? In order to answer these questions, we first must understand the numbers behind the growth of obesity in the US.

In the course of just a decade (since 2011), it is clear according to the data complied below just how much obesity has grown in the US. The map depicts the percentage growth of adulthood obesity in each state over a ten-year period, and the results are startling to say the least.

With the exception of one state (Nebraska), every single state has seen some sort of percentage growth within its obesity levels. The most profound change can be seen in Wyoming which had a sharp 13.8% rise from 25% to 38.8% obesity rate in a ten-year period. Wyoming is a just one of 17 other states highlighted in dark blue with had over a 3.5% growth of obesity within this timeframe.

A glance at the rising obesity levels per state 2011–2021

So now that we have a deeper understanding of the numbers behind the obesity epidemic in the US, what role do fast food restaurants play in the issue of rising obesity?

If you take a drive through most US towns, there is a high probability that you will stumble across a fast food joint at some point in time. With the large number of these restaurants scattered across the country, it is no surprise that the public will flock to them in droves. With the convenience of having deep fried food at such a close distance (especially with companies like Grubhub or Doordash), it is no surprise that obesity rates have skyrocketed.

In the bar graph below, you can see the top five fast food chains in the US throughout 2020. Starbucks remains on top of the list with a shocking 14,736 locations, with McDonalds following in with a close second with 13,683 locations nationally.

In the bar graph, you can see the locations of the five most popular fast-food joints

If we dig deeper behind these figures, you can see that the gross revenue of these restaurants gives us a perceptive of the interplay between rising numbers of obesity in the US and fast food restaurants.

In the pie chart below, you can see the revenue of the same type of five fast food joints of 2020 that were described in the bar graph above. These numbers are startling to say the least; with a combined total of over 96 billion dollars, it clearly shows that fast food restaurants are not just surviving but clearly thriving in today’s world. All of these restaurants had a gross revenue of over a billion dollars, with McDonald's taking the lead with over 40 billion, and Burger King following in last place with 10 billion dollars.

A glance of the gross revenue of top five main fast-food joints in 2020

Now that we understand the role that fast food plays in perpetuating the obesity epidemic, how exactly does fast food keep consumers coming back time and time again? The answer lies in the simplest of features within these dishes. Sweet, salty, chewy, crunchy.. these are just a few of the attributes that chemical food engineers keep in mind when creating and combining the flavors and textures which have become the iconic fast food mainstays we love and consume today. The ingredients behind these foods can create a psychological cycle similar to addiction for consumers, which makes it hard for them to practice mindful eating.

So the next time you feel that familiar craving for that savory, sweet and sizzling taste of junk food, stop and think. The story that lies just beyond the cusp of that deep fried flavor may just surprise you.

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