What Chick-fil-A's cows aren't telling you (about obesity and homophobia)

By Michael Yudell

The anti-gay marriage comments made a few weeks back by Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, may be enough to turn your stomach and send you running to the nearest national chain eatery that doesn’t mix homophobia with its fare. But let’s not forget that much of what his restaurants sell can be dangerous in another way: the food at Chick-fil-A, along with other chains that serve high-calorie, over-salted, excessively sugared, and way-too-fatty foods, is a menace to the public’s health. Obesity is literally killing America, and fast foods are pushing us toward the precipice.

The recent hubbub over Chick-fil-A was started by Cathy, who shared his belief that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage. And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we would have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.”

But how about judgment over the food Chick-fil-A serves?

Full disclosure: I’ve long been a big fan of Chick-fil-A, once even missing a flight home because I just had to stop and get my favorite Deluxe Chicken Sandwich, large waffle fries dipped in Polynesian sauce, a side salad with Caesar dressing, and a large lemonade. This was before Chick-fil-A was in New York, my home at the time, and suffice it to say that my wife was not happy with my delay.

Using Chick-fil-A’s own trusty meal calculator, I determined that I paid a severe price for that flight delay, not to mention the hundreds of other Chick-fil-A visits since. That single meal consisted of 1700 calories, 76 grams of Fat (17 grams of which were saturated), 115 milligrams of cholesterol, 100 grams of sugar, and a whopping 2,425 milligrams of sodium. Had I substituted the chargrilled chicken instead of the fried, the meal’s fat content would be 59 grams, its cholesterol 105mg, and its sodium 1,555mg, still way too high for a single sitting.

Let’s put this in perspective. According to dietary recommendations for men between 31 and 50, that one wonderful Chick-fil-A meal exceeded the daily maximum recommendation for sodium (which is less than 2,300mg, although half the population, including anyone who is at least 51 or is African American, is advised to consume no more than 1,500mg), and basically met or exceeded my recommended total daily fat and saturated fat intake (between 20 percent and 35 percent for total fats and 7 percent for saturated fats). And let’s not forget about sugar. At a whopping 100 grams, my meal almost doubled the American Heart Association’s recommended 56 grams per day for someone targeting a 2,600 calorie-per-day-diet.

There are risks to such consumption, and most immediately, of course, is obesity. Too much fat consumption is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and breast, colon, and prostate cancers. High sodium intake is a risk factor for high blood pressure, stroke, kidney disease, and stomach cancer. Finally, excessive sugar consumption is linked to a host of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cavities, heart disease, and various forms of cancer.

Corporations don’t like media storms and, in the wake of their chief operating officer's anti-gay marriage comments, the Chick-fil-A media office issued a press release gingerly walking back his comments, saying that, “going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” Given Cathy’s statements and the activities of the WinShape Foundation, Chick-fil-A’s charitable organization, that’s a bit disingenuous, to put it mildly. WinShape, it turns out, has long supported anti-gay and anti-gay marriage groups.

But if Chick-fil-A really wants to stick to what it calls its “simple” mission to “serve great food, provide genuine hospitality and have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A,” it should do two things:

First, it needs to be completely honest about how the corporation is using its consumers’ dollars. If your Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich is contributing to anti-gay causes, then you should know that and have the right to decide whether or not to continue to buy it. I suppose there is a market for products tied to bigotry, but I’d like to think that it’s shrinking and ultimately unprofitable.

Second, if Chick-fil-A really wants to have “a positive influence” on its customers, it needs to immediately remake the menu by decreasing the caloric, salt, fat, and sugar content of indulgent menu items. To be fair, Chick-fil-A does serve a diverse menu that includes healthy items like carrot and raisin salad and a chicken salad sandwich. And, according to Steve Robinson, executive vice president of marketing, Chick-fil-A is engaged in a “broader initiative to offer healthier menu options to customers.”

Of course, people don’t go to fast food restaurants for carrot and raisin salad. They go for what’s most delicious and fattening. Robinson says his bestselling menu item is the Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich. And it’s fried, salty, and delicious. This needs to change. Restaurants like Chick-fil-A have a choice: They can help their customers get healthy. Or they can continue pushing them toward the precipice.

Chick-fil-A finds itself at a crossroads, and in the coming months will be working to remake its image. Wouldn’t it be great if it found the moral grounding to reinvent itself as a healthier, tasty, non-homophobic alternative to fast food?

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