How Pakistan's fast-food trend is devouring you

In Pakistan, we have come a long way from the time in the late '70s when I saw a man collect his burger from the counter and sit down to eat it. He appeared perplexed and observed his meal very closely.

Then, he finally seemed to have figured it out. Removing the top part of the bun, he put it carefully on one side. He then took the toppings and placed them on the wrapper. Finally, the patty came out and was put separately from the other ingredients. Proceeding to break the bun by hand, he started eating the burger as a desi roti with kebab and chutney.

Welcome to the world of choices and the free market economy The fundamental premise of this model is that humans are rational and thus must be allowed free choice between whatever is on offer in the market.

It is not surprising that the least nutritious - and actually harmful - food products have the largest advertising budgets. How many advertisements do you see for the healthy but humble lentils (daal) or for fresh vegetables? It is all always potatoes chips, chocolates, burgers, and fried chicken that adorn all the billboards and newspapers, and appear endlessly on the television.

On my left is a bottle of Coca-Cola, weighing at a hefty 140 calories, and on my right a glass of water weighing at zero calories. What would you choose?

Clearly, the consumers, bombarded with the advertisements, often end up buying what is not good for their health.

The purpose of food is to sustain life, but food choices these days are actually fatal In many developed parts of the world, obesity (and not traffic accidents, as you may have thought) is the biggest preventable cause of death. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, dementia and various other deadly ailments.

Fast food consumption is now on a rapid rise and Pakistanis from all economic and social strata have hopped onto the bandwagon of junk food consumption. The well-heeled eat at McDonalds or KFC, while the financially hard up settle for Bismillah Burger and Noora French Fries with the same relish.

Are humans suicidal? No. But results from studies carried out to determine food preferences indicate that they do happen to be just plain lazy.

A study on fast food consumption trends in Pakistan published in the European Journal of Economics, Finance and Administrative Science; Issue 48 (2012) confirms this assertion.

The study was conducted in Lahore and Faisalabad and 100 persons were interviewed.

89 per cent people indicated a preference for fast food over fine dining or cooking at home. 70 per cent people answered yes when asked if they thought fast food led to obesity. 70 per cent of the respondents cited convenience as the reason for eating fast food. The cost of fast food is still an important issue in a country like Pakistan (60 per cent indicated that they were not satisfied with the price), and thus the underprivileged of the country are less obese.

While one can cynically conclude that the poor in Pakistan are more healthy, the issue of obesity cannot be brushed away even in an economically backward country. The fact is, that like the rest of the world, the increase in fast food consumption continues to be on the upswing in Pakistan among all classes.

The study in Pakistan provides results that are consistent with similar studies carried out around the world. This clearly indicates how carefully planned advertising can bring down the cultural and geographical boundaries even in an aspect of life like food preference that is very strongly culture bound.

What can be done to reverse this trend? A complete ban or a reduction in fast-food advertising may be helpful.

Kathy Baylis, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign, studied the ban on junk-food advertising imposed in the Canadian province of Quebec from 1984 to 1992 and its effect on fast-food purchases. The study indicated a 13 per cent week reduction in fast-food expenditures.

Increasing awareness of good nutrition and the negative effects of fast food among children may also greatly help. Schools can play a positive role in this regard.

However, the unfortunate reality is that as long as the myth of free choice is considered sacrosanct, the human race will continue to destroy their health by excessive smoking, drinking and above all, by the destroyers of all destroyers; fast food.

All this talk about food has me wondering if I still have any McDonalds discount coupons in my desk drawer. More importantly, I wonder, can one supersize a meal on discounts coupons?