Not even close: Fast-food joints trump grocery stores

McDonald’s was my happy place as a child: I loved it all, from Happy Meals to apple turnovers that scalded the roof of my mouth. When we first moved to Kenton, OH, there was no McDonald’s, and I was an Unhappy Meal camper. Instead, there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which became my home away from home until finally my prayers were answered.

“Mom! Dad! Let’s go to McDonald’s!” We got in the car, drove past the farms and corn fields, and wheeled up to the drive-thru. I was tickled pink!

When we pulled up for our food, the worker gave us a roof cone with a number on it (like a dunce cap) and said, “Park it!”

Forty-five minutes later, our sagging fries and cold hamburgers arrived in a grease-stained bag. But did we eat it? Absolutely!

Should we have just gone to the grocery store across the street instead?

“Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores” (Arch Internal Med/171(13) July 11, 2001) is a compilation of 15 years of data from a study of “Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults.”

Researchers wanted to see if the availability of supermarkets and grocery stores would improve diet and increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables. They also checked to see if the proximity of fast food restaurants influenced the frequency of eating out.

The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity includes a goal to increase access to healthy foods in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Though the evidence is sketchy, there is a common-sense belief that fast foods are a fast route to obesity.

So what did the research show regarding 18- to 30-year-olds? Sadly, it showed that easier access to a grocery store really didn’t improve the diets of the poor, middle class– or the wealthy. If Americans want to eat potato chips and cupcakes, they're going to (and candy and ice cream and soda etc.)

In fact, higher-income women tend to buy more junk food in bulk— which I know is a fact because at Giant and Kroger and everywhere else, I see my patients pushing carts filled with things that didn’t come from the ground or a tree.

“Oh, Hiiiii-ya, Dr. Hong. I really don’t eat this stuff; I’m throwing a party! And some wild animals ate up all the fresh fruits and vegetables I had.”

Fast-food restaurants were visited more frequently by lower-income men if they were within walking distance. But, still, across the board, people go the distance for disgusting (yummy) unhealthy food. I admit, I drive nine miles to my favorite Five Guys (the only fast-food place I patronize), although I go maybe only once every few months.

I want to be the host of a new reality TV show that pits the neighborhood grocery store against fast-food restaurants. Who would win?

Near my medical office, one grocery store is trying to hold is own against four major fast-food franchise joints. It’s a shame, because people can eat a pound of fresh veggies and fruits and not gain one ounce, unlike the inches added from burgers, shakes, and fries.

So perhaps it comes down to educating the public about food choices. I do this as much as I can with my patients, but I think it’s going to take much more than that. Rarely do patients want a referral to a dietician (with the exception of diabetics), and I hear too often, “I’m gonna eat what I’m gonna eat. If you were a chocolate Easter doctor, I would eat your ears off right now.”
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a respected physician with an interesting website, Email him with your questions.