Debatable: Is fast food all bad?

Originally published in Dirt magazine’s May 2020 edition. To read more or subscribe to Dirt, visit:

NY /
| 06 Jan 2021 | 11:49

A decent employer, but fast food hijacks your brain and body

Most questions lack clear dichotomies we lately see in politics — cocaine was one of the first local anesthetics and is still widely used in eye surgery. So here go a few positives before I attempt to convince you why fast food is terrible for your health and well-being.

From the lens of a former restaurant employee, fast food chains offer protections unseen in the private sector. I never had to call the owner telling them that half the staff didn’t show up for work. I could rest assured that my next table would never be swept out from under me as I ran from kitchen to salad bar because the busser ran off with the salad specialist. Big chains have procedures for harassment: I rarely saw the demoralization I’ve witnessed in private restaurants where behind the scenes, respect was negotiable.

Yet from the perspective of a preventive medicine advocate, fast food is a chronic disease disaster with a sunshine theme slapped on the label. Few things are as indisputable as the link between easily accessible fast food and the rise of chronic disease. Let’s start with food deserts, or “food swamps.” If you got it fast, expect it to be infused with a bucketload of salt and sugar and painted with layers of butter: a heart attack waiting to happen.

Oh, wait... you ordered fish as a “healthier” choice? Well, by the time it’s either drowned in butter, fried or covered in cheese, tartar sauce or some other cholesterol bomb, it’s probably even more unhealthy than that burger.

No heart disease in the family, you say? Not to worry. The inflammation stemming from these foods exacerbates every chronic disease, from skin to colon to blood vessels and beyond.

Few realize how much fast food is indebted to food scientists who are paid a pretty penny owing to their Ph.D.’s in addiction science. They know all about the dopamine rush of street drugs that hijacks your brain’s reward pathway so that the desire obliterates rational thinking. Bystanders of addicts repeatedly ask, How could someone choose heroin over one’s child? The addiction scientists know the answer, as they’ve seen the restructuring of the brain’s pathways once addiction embeds itself like a parasite. A leading neuroscientist used positron emission tomography (PET scans) to demonstrate that both obese and drug-addicted individuals “suffer from impairments in dopaminergic pathways” that regulate the systems in our brain responsible for our sensitivity to reward, our motivation as well as impulse control, reactivity to stress, and awareness of our body’s internal state.

Using the research findings your tax dollars have helped fund, food strategists exploit our evolutionary instinct to seek out the salty, the sweet and the fatty foods to stave off starvation. Their job is to keep you craving and coming back, again and again... and again, by making things thousands of times sweeter and saltier than anything found in nature.

Once you adjust to this gustatory bombardment, it’s hard to turn back. You lose your ability to taste the more colorful, yet subtle flavors in the life-preserving whole foods your body really needs, the only ones that will give you the upper hand against the monolithic entity that is our obesity and chronic disease epidemic.

- Emily Kahoud, of Warwick, NY, is a Rutgers NJMS M.D. candidate

Paving a path for the next generation of farmers

With the average age of farmers at about 58 and more than half of U.S. farms losing money last year, the future of real food depends on cultivating the next generation of farmers. The Chipotle brand is implementing a scalable solution via three-year contracts, seed grants and increased local purchasing, which will significantly impact the lives of young farmers and their communities so they can make a living during a period of steep agriculture downturn.

Over the last five years, U.S. agriculture lost over 40 times more farmers than it gained, challenging the future of small and midsized farms throughout the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farm debt is projected to hit a record $416 billion this year, up almost 40% since 2012. Fewer farms means less real food and trouble for the communities that depend on them. To help drive change, Chipotle will deploy various tools to help reinvigorate the industry and help bridge one of the largest economic challenges.

Chipotle will commit to helping the next generation of farmers by paving a path to profitability through three-year contracts to buy product from farmers under the age of 40, starting with beef, pork and dairy. A vote of confidence can go a long way, and three-year contracts help young farmers get started and reduce the risk of market changes or uncertainty. Through Chipotle’s new commitments, over 500,000 pounds of pork for their slow-braised carnitas will be sourced from new young farmers over the next four years.

Further, Chipotle is also committing to increase its local sourcing across the country in 2020, serving more local ingredients in every Chipotle restaurant than ever before. According to its Sustainability Report, 29 million pounds of all produce purchased last year was grown locally.

Additionally, in partnership with the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, Chipotle will raise money through consumer actions to fund Seed Grants to establish and assist young farmers.

“Farmers committed to farming in a sustainable and ethical way need help to have a chance to succeed – both for the sake of the future of real nutritious food and the communities that rely on those farms,” said Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol.

“We are able to keep raising pigs because we have these great customers and supporters, like Chipotle, that care about where their food comes from and are buying product that’s raised sustainably, and ethically, and as a result, are supporting families just like mine,” said Elle Gadient, Farmer Advocate for Niman Ranch, a network of independent farms that adhere to humane, sustainable standards.

- Compiled from marketing material provided by Chipotle