Special report: Is New Zealand's addiction to fast food killing us?

In part one of Newshub's special investigation into Kiwi addictions, we examined how alcoholism has become New Zealand's 'accepted' addiction.

Another is our desire to consume vast quantities of takeaways and heavily processed snacks like potato chips and fizzy drinks.

Fast food is hard to ignore in this country, as we have more fast food outlets per capita than just about any other country on Earth.

There are about 3500 fast food outlets in New Zealand - that's one for every 1300 of us.

So how fat are we compared to other countries?

Special report: Is New Zealand's addiction to fast food killing us?

As you can see, we're third in the OECD, only behind Mexico and the United States, with a staggering 65.6 percent of Kiwis over the age of 15 classed as either being obese or overweight.

The OECD has estimated obesity costs New Zealand about $1 billion a year and how overweight we are has a massive bearing on how long we live. 

Is there a direct link between fast food and obesity?

Addiction expert and researcher Professor Doug Sellman is director of the National Addiction Centre in Christchurch.

He told Newshub the fast food industry thrives on people eating it more, and the moreishness of particular brands lies in the engineered combination of fat, sugar and salt in its products. These are all ingredients New Zealanders consume far too much of already.

"Fast food outlets facilitate overeating through convenience, low price and provision of energy-dense moreish food, and therefore are an important factor in the New Zealand population eating too much.

"Not everyone with food addiction is obese and not everyone with obesity has food addiction. However, in our experience there is a very strong relationship between the behaviour of food addiction and the medical condition of obesity."

Is it possible to become addicted to fast food?

Prof Sellman says it is possible to become addicted to fast food.

"By addiction to fast food I mean the development of a compulsive habit of eating fast food.

"Addiction is established when something you like has moved through the stage of it being something you want, to being something you need, or at least feel that you need it. 

"Addiction involves neurobiological mechanisms in the instinctual, survival recesses of our brains."

What's it like to eat fast food every day?

Auckland man Danny Wilkins worked in a music store on Queen Street while he was in his mid-20s and told Newshub he would eat fast food, specifically Burger King, most days of the week, usually purchasing the five dollar meal of fries, burger, drink and ice cream.

Burger King franchise in New Zealand
Aucklander Danny Wilkins would eat Burger King's $5 meals almost every day. (Getty)

Mr Wilkins says he put on 10kg over a year thanks to his fast food habit.

"It was just so convenient to eat there, as it was just across the road the from work."

Wayne Chettleburgh works in a media role and describes himself jokingly as a 'recovered fast food addict'.

Mr Chettleburgh told us he would eat fast food every day for lunch and dinner. 

"I was mainly having whatever was in close proximity to work. So things like Indian takeaways, pizza, Chinese and kebabs. Not so much McDonald's or KFC. But also soft drink rather than water as well."

Mr Chettleburgh said he would eat fast food out of convenience rather than having a craving for a specific type of food, and was spending about $150 a week on it.

"If it was particularly high in carbohydrates then I would feel a bit tired afterwards and then need an energy drink or something to perk up. I also started to notice a bit of fat being deposited around the waist."

Mr Chettleburgh says he has cut down on his fast food intake dramatically, citing the expense of it to be the biggest issue.

Marketing is king

KFC and McDonald's are the kings of fast food marketing in New Zealand and Australia. It's hard to turn on the TV or watch sport on both sides of the Tasman and not be inundated with their products and slogans.

KFC sponsored decision in NRL match between the Warriors and Knights
It's almost impossible to watch sport without fast food sponsored branding making an appearance. (Sky TV - Warriors vs Knights - NRL)

Prof Sellman told Newshub one the most important factors in the success of fast food brands is expensive marketing campaigns, such as what KFC pursue in Australian sport.

"It's the marketing of this food as being necessary for being a successful person, in the in-crowd, a good parent, that contributes to consumers developing a regular desire for and habit of eating fast food.

"For some, it drives them towards a compulsive habit of eating fast food."

Does the fast food industry need to be regulated?

Prof Sellman believes only New Zealand's law makers can forcibly change and control the booming fast food industry.

"Government regulation is the answer. It is the tobacco and alcohol industry story all over again. 

"The price of freedom from government regulation is enslavement of large numbers of the population to these profit, rather than health-driven industries."

But Prof Sellman isn't optimistic the Government will do anything to effect meaningful change in the fast food industry.

"Unfortunately, we live in intense neo-liberal economic times when public health is given less value by governments to the GDP contribution of big business, while the harms are relatively discounted."

What can be done to combat the booming fast food industry?

Prof Sellman suggests the following measures:

  1. Dismantle the marketing
  2. Increase the price
  3. Reduce accessibility (density of outlets and hours of sale)
  4. Increase the age of purchase
  5. More incentives for people to leave their cars at home

The owner of KFC in New Zealand, Restaurant Brands, refused to comment on any of our fast food addiction questions.

McDonald's restaurant
McDonald's New Zealand says it has been proactive in improving the nutrition of its menu. (Getty)

McDonald's New Zealand spokesperson Simon Kenny gave this response to Newshub:

"We're aware that the National Addiction Centre has begun looking at the concept of food addiction, but have not seen anything specifically related to the catch-all of 'fast food'. 

"It's clear obesity is an issue in New Zealand, and effective solutions require a broad multi-sectoral approach. 

"We are engaged in the process, we listen and we act. For over a decade we've taken a proactive stance on nutritional improvements to our menu, which has included reformulating products to reduce salt, saturated fat and sugar, while adding healthier choices. 

"We are transparent about what goes into our food, and provide detailed nutritional information. We've also continued to take a responsible approach to marketing, especially with regards to children. 

"As the largest family restaurant chain in New Zealand we continue to show leadership, and last year were one of an initial group of companies and organisations to sign the Ministry of Health's Healthy Kids Pledge. 

"On average New Zealanders visit McDonald's once or twice a month. We have a range of options, from occasional treats, to food and beverage suitable for an everyday diet."