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Omaha’s Fast Food Fixation

By Sally Casillas, Brooklyn Martin, and Maria Juan

Introduction

In America, it is reported that 68% of Americans are obese and 72% are considered overweight (Alber, Julia and Hamilton, Diane, 2012) and the numbers may increase if current situations don’t resolve. There are many factors one may consider when figuring out why such rapid weight gain or health issues. In our research, we explore the menus of four major fast food chains in Omaha, Nebraska. Those four restaurants are Runza, Burger King, Taco Bell and McDonald’s. Within those four fast food restaurants we created four themes that we probe to formulate our research. The four themes for our project are calories, dietary fats, sodium and sugar. All of these components contribute to the meals served at our fast food restaurants and if consumed in abundance may contribute to obesity.

Calories 

One of the four themes in our research is calories. A high caloric intake on daily basis for human consumption can lead to an unhealthy diet which can contribute to obesity. For the first piece of data pulled from the McDonald’s menu is focused on calories in the meals. The calories just from a sandwich, which is only a quarter of your meal, is 300-740 calories each. Drinks are from 100-300, an entire meal which would normally be a sandwich, fries, drink and some with an addition of dessert. All together that could be as much as 1200 calories in one meal. If you look closer, half of the calories are from fat. The numbers being 150-530 just from fat. There is no substance or nutritional value whatsoever (McDonald’s nutrition facts).

Looking at this information further, the caloric amount an individual should intake daily amounts to one meal from McDonald’s. With the recommended three meals per day, the food amounts to no nutritional value for people and provides no nutritional support a person’s health and surpassed the daily caloric intake per day.

There are a variety of meal options which would include breakfast and a combination of lunch and dinner. From sandwiches (different types and mix of ingredients, main base of chicken, hamburger, ribs, or fish), chicken nuggets, fries, onion rings, drinks (most all sodas, tea, coffee, slushy’s (sugary, “fun” drinks), whatever you could really think of they have). They offer any fatty and tasty item you could think of.

Now let’s look into our second menu, Burger King. The calories are as high, if not higher than on some menu items on MacDonald’s. The main part of the meal averages 200-990 calories, drinks are high, 500calories and up. For example, a bacon cheeseburger is 390 calories and 190 are from fat, and a double cheeseburger is 360 calories and 170 from fat. You can see that the numbers are very close and that there is not much difference between the two. Whopper Sandwich 650 calories and 340 from fat, Whopper Sandwich with Cheese is 730 calories, 400 from fat, without Mayo it is 600 calories and 260 from fat. This shows little of how they break up their caloric information on the food. If you exclude the cheese/ mayo it is less calories. This really does not matter because in reality the average fast food consumer gets the food item just as it is, rarely making product exemptions to the food. Majority do not think about how little things like sauce, buns, and cheese can largely add calories and fat to their meal. When an individual goes out to eat, they do not go to think about these things. Looking at the highest to lowest an A.1. Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger is 810 calories and 440 from fat to just a regular hamburger 230 calories and only 80 are from fat. Providing this example to you allows you to see what is the variety of nutritional information. The menu item of chicken, a Tender Grilled Chicken Sandwich standing at 460 calories and 190 from fat, to tender crisp Chicken Sandwich 660 calories and 360 from fat. This allows you to see how much change can happen within just the difference of a grilled to a crisp chicken sandwich. Even further in comparing hamburger to chicken, the amounts are similar. Seeing that there is no big difference between the two menus and just like McDonald’s there are many choices, but they are all very unhealthy and high in calories and fat.

The third menu is Taco Bell. When looking into this menu, right away there were nutritional warnings towards the substances of all Taco Bells products. The second thing was that the calories from fat in this section was the highest than any and all other fast food places. The items ranged from 140-930 in calories for each food item. For illustration, a bag of just nacho cheese Doritos is 140 calories and 70 from fat, to a grilled stuff burrito-steak 830 calories and 320 in fat. Mostly served is burritos but lots of different types, like breakfast, lunch and dinner categories. One of the things interesting with their menu is that many of the items were very similar in the amount of calories each of they contained. The beef burrito 650 calories with 300 being in fat, chicken burrito 620 calories with 270 in fat, and steak burrito 630 calories with 280 in fat. Also with the grilled stuff burrito chicken 810 calories 300 from fat, grilled stuff burrito steak 830 calories 320 in fat. Another example is the smothered burritos, beef 700 calories/310 of fat, chicken 640calories/250 of fat, and steak 660 calories/260 of fat. As you can see a difference, but the same outcome in calories in the variety of foods. Just like the data from the other menus Taco Bell was very similar in they are all fast food restaurants, but in this one there are some differences. Taco Bell does not have as much different varieties as the other two fast food chains mentioned. It has many combinations but it comes down to it just being burritos mainly and chips. Another thing was the introduction of vegetarian food items available. Ironically though, it had no difference in calories, fat, and any of the other substances. For instance, the vegetarian 7 -layer burrito is 430/140, this is the exact same percentage as the normal 7-layer burrito, and there are others as well. They implementation of vegetarian meals seems healthy, but really there is no difference from any of the other options on the menu. In overview, you can see many things are similar in the Taco Bell menu as they are in the others.

The last piece was Runza. This is the last of the secondary analysis. At first Runza, in advertisement and on their intro page of their menu displayed, they made healthy and nutritional food. Showing that they were different and better than other fast food joints. As it looked good on the outside, it appeared to not be when looking closely. Runza was just the same as any of the other restaurants in both of these main categories, variety, fat and calories. It was in many aspects more in calories than in the others food/meals.

Original Runza Sandwich 530/180 in calories/fat, Cheese Runza Sandwich 580/220 in calories/fat, chicken not being very different, Smothered Grilled Chicken Sandwich 430/150 in calories/fat. The caloric numbers are still substantial in standing with either of the other three restaurants. The soups, salads, and sides alone were all 300 and more in calories.

Overall, if you look at obesity especially in America the fast food industry, you can see that not only is fast food unhealthy it is not beneficial to your health. It is one of the leading causes and contributor of obesity. With the rising numbers of those overweight and obese, calories and the food that many Americans consume regularly and often can help or harm us as a whole. With fast food being fast, convenient, good and cheap it is the ideal and very popular. Within the direction of calories and food, the people who choose and lean towards fast food often are consuming almost three times the caloric amount that they should or need. The food choices are all fattening, unhealthy, and contain no substance for the person. With these two factors, show how fast food majorly and negatively affects/aids in obesity.

Dietary Fats in Fast food

Eating healthy is important. It helps with feeling your best, avoiding sickness, and it may help avoid certain diseases. Eating healthy also helps maintain a healthy body weight. Nutritious foods like vegetables and fruits give you energy and keep your heart, mind, muscles, and bones strong. Another type of nutrient that your body needs is healthy fats and oils. Fats and oils add flavor to food, help you to feel full, and provide the body with energy, fatty acids, and vitamin E (Help Guide). Foods with monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats are the healthiest. Examples of monounsaturated fats are beans, seeds, avocado, olive and nuts. It can help with lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Even though monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you other fats do contribute to obesity. The unhealthy fats are trans and saturated which is also commonly found in fast food (Harvard Health). Trans and saturated fats are naturally produced in the gut of some grazing animals. Which is why small traces of it can be found in animal products like meat, milk, and milk products (FDA). Even though both trans and saturated fat are unhealthy, trans fat is worse. Saturated fat just raises the level of cholesterol in your blood in order to avoid it eating healthier food choice and exercise is recommended (Saturated Fat AHA). While trans fats is more dangerous since it raises your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing diabetes, which is linked back to obesity (Obesity Society). The trans fat found in fast food is made by mixing hydrogen and vegetable oil (a process called hydrogenation) to make it more solid (Trans Fat AHA).

Food manufacturers and fast food places uses partially hydrogenated oils to improve the texture, shelf life, and flavor of foods (Trans Fat AHA). A bad fatty diet increases the risk for breast cancer in women also women who consumed the fatty dairy products were more likely to die during a 12-year follow-up, compared with those who consumed the least (Physician Committee). Eating trans fat raises the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol in the blood. An elevated LDL blood cholesterol level can increase your risk of having hypertension and many other health problems even cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S. Which indicated that trans fat should be consumed at a low percentage (FDA). According to an article “There is an association of obesity and fibrinolytic activity and fibrinogen concentrations, which have been implicated to the onset and course of ischemic heart disease. Furthermore, obesity has been proven to increase cardiac workload, intravascular volume, and lipid metabolism” (Jhamp). Reasons fast food restaurants use trans fats is because it is inexpensive to produce and last a long time. They also use it deep-fry foods because oils with trans fats can be used many times in commercial fryers. Some jurisdictions (California, New York City, Baltimore, and Montgomery County, MD) have reduced or restricted the use of trans fats in food service establishments (Trans Fat AHA).

Trans fats became popular before 1990 and very little was known about how trans fat can harm your health. In the 1990s, research began identifying the adverse health effects of trans fats. Based on these findings, FDA instituted labeling regulations for trans fat and consumption has decreased in the US, however some individuals may consume high levels of trans fats based on how many times they eat fast foods (Trans Fats AHA). Nebraska has the 20th highest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America. Nebraska’s adult obesity rate is currently 30.2 percent, up from 20.1 percent in 2000 and from 11.3 percent in 1990 (State Of Obesity).

Men approximately consume around 81 grams of dietary fat a day and on the other hand females eat around 64 grams a day on average (Collins). “According to the American Heart Association suggests that healthy adults limit dietary fat to no more than 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories […] Let’s say you’re on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, 400 to 700 calories can come from dietary fat, which translates to between 44 and 78 fat grams a day” (Zeratsky). A Burger King whopper with cheese has 44grams of fat (Burger King Menu). A BLT sandwich from Runza has 40 grams of fat (Runza Menu). A Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese from McDonalds has a total of 45 grams of fat (McDonald’s Menu). Lastly, if you buy a Sausage Breakfast Crunch wrap from taco bell it has a whopping total of 47 grams of fat (Taco Bell Menu). All the items that have been listed were either the limit or half the total of the recommended intake of total fats, which clearly shows that the food is not at all healthy. Another thing is the items that were listed are just the main course it didn’t include a side or a drink, which would raise the total fats even higher. By the total fats shown on one item and the recommended grams of fat that should be consumed, it’s not at all hard to pass the limit of total fats. People can get carried away with eating. Fast food items that might look healthy and possibly have lower total fats were not giving total fats recommendation any justice its as bad as the food with high total fats. For example a Cantina power bowl vegetarian styles has 18 grams of fat. It has as much fat as medium fries from Burger King (Burger King/Taco Bell Menu). Another examples is purchasing a “healthy meal” from Runza a sweet berry chicken salad has 19 grams of fat and jalapeno ranch dressing has 20 grams of fat. It totals up to 39 grams total fat. It equals up to 39 grams of fat, which is the same total fat as a half-pound double cheeseburger from Runza (Runza Menu).

An alternative to buying fast food are home cooked meals, but the negative to that is its time consuming which is why people don’t do it as much so instead they just go to fast food drive thru to buy cheap and fatty foods. In an article it was found that the duration or parents employment is associated with increased body mass index, or faster than average BMI growth as children age. It was also found that children of mothers who worked standard primary shifts and nonstandard secondary shifts were at higher risk for obesity compared to children whose mothers worked standard shifts only. The reasons are because parents are not always around to supervise the number of hours a kid sits around looking at a screen, the number of hours spent lying around and while also being fed fast food from their parents because apparently their is not time to prepare nutritious meals instead they just buy fast food loaded with artificial trans fat in order to have a quick and “fulfilling meal” (Miller, Daniel P., and Jina Chang / Live Well Nebraska).

In another article it was found that prices also contribute to obesity such as ordering from the “dollar menu”. For example a Mcdouble at McDonalds is $1.19, but the unhealthy fact is that it has 18 grams of fat (McDonalds Menu). Another thing is taxes was raised on unhealthy foods so less people would buy the product, but in the study it was shown that it was still purchased because it was convenient and affordable. It also showed people would still buy unhealthy foods if the tax were minimal and that unhealthy food didn’t concern them (Mcmahan, Shari, Jeffery Hampl, and Yosuke Chikamoto). In order to decrease the chances of getting obesity related illness (Diabetes, High blood pressure etc.) is to consume less fat and to eat healthier foods. When eating out, ask which fats are being used to make the food you’re ordering to see if they have other options such as baked or grilled foods. Another thing that is helpful is to read over the nutritional menu in order to see the foods with lower fat option (Trans Fat AHA). For home cooking people should try to use un-hydrogenated oils such as coconut, corn, and olive oil most often to cut total fats consumption (Healthy Guide).

 Sugar

When reviewing and analyzing the secondary data, many of the foods surpassed the percent daily value that is recommended for daily consumption. When choosing a fast food menu item, one does not take into consideration the components that make up the total nutrition make up that is in the food item. As previously discussed calories, the different varieties of food menu options, prices and fats that contribute to obesity this section will be discussing sugar and the link it has to obesity.

In every item that is able to be consumed has a label on the back of the product. This is called the nutrition label or nutrition facts. This label tells you about the product and how much they have in each serving to include: calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, carbohydrates, etc. The label also tells you the ingredients that are in the product and the recommended percent daily value the Food and Drug Administration recommends ingesting daily. However, there’s one substance that the FDA does not have a percent daily value for and that is sugar. It is unknown when the FDA removed the daily value of sugar for human consumption and for that matter, it should concern you. In the 20th century, the sugar recommendation was 30grams of sugar. Now, it is not listed and a small beverage from a fast food company contains on average 30grams of sugar (it doubles or triples as you increase in size).

 

According to Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, “the basic cause of obesity is an imbalance between the amount of energy taken in, through eating and drinking, and the amount of energy expended through metabolism and physical activity.” Being said, fast food restaurants do not display their calories on their main menu, and if they do, they only display the calories and not the substances that contribute to obesity and other health concerns. Fast food restaurants have become a regular diet for Americans, and is found that our population typically eats fast food twice a week (Grier, S, 2007). Fast food restaurants provide “healthy menu items”, which is far from healthy due to how processed their foods are, unhealthy add-on (croutons, dressing, etc.,), and high sugar content to please the consumer’s pallet.

 

If taken in high consumptions, sugar can lead to obesity and other health problems. When ingesting sugar and do not participate in daily exercise, our body stores that extra sugar and cannot convert it into energy, thus overworking our gall bladder and liver. Consuming an abundant amount of sugar can lead to diabetes type2 and other possible cancers (Albert, Julia, Hamilton, Diane, 2012). In the secondary analysis, menus from four different fast food restaurants were used to compare and contrast our themes that are located here in Omaha, Nebraska. Those fast food restaurants that were analyzed are: Runza, McDonalds. Burger King and Taco Bell. The food item that contains the least amount of sugar are those that have chicken in it. On average, those food items under the Chicken Sandwich/Chicken Wraps/ Chicken Strips/Chicken Nuggets contain an average of 4grams of sugar among all four restaurants surveyed. Runza was the “lesser of all evil” in a sense that their food did not contain such high caloric value and contained a maximum of 11grams of sugar on the unhealthiest food item. However, their salads contained an average of 33grams of sugar. Burger King had an average of 11.23grams of sugar on all of their Whopper sandwiches and Chicken sandwiches. Their salads had an average of 3grams of sugar, which is not bad compared to Runza’s salads. Taco Bell’s burritos had an average of 6grams of sugar on all of their food items not including drinks. McDonald’s had an average of 15-20grams of sugar on all of their food menu items. They had the longest list of food items, which I broke down 15grams for solid food and 20grams for their desserts and specialties.

 

Surveying the sugar content does not seem all that bad, but one must remember that sugar is not the only substance that contributes to obesity and other health risks, it is just one of the factors. There are many factors that are found to be linked to obesity and other health problems, and this research project discussed some of those factors in fast food menu items.

Sodium

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults to consume a maximum of 2300mg of sodium per day. In 2010, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest people over the age of 51 years consume a maximum of 1500mg of sodium per day (Howlett, E, Burton, S, Tangeri, A, Bui, M, 2012). However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average daily intake of sodium for Americans over 2years old is 3,436mg of sodium per day. The recommended 2300mg of sodium was meant for adults, and yet toddlers are consuming over 100% of the maximum. The CDC also states that there is a relationship between sodium and obesity, as well as hypertension. Also, 77% of salt that is consumed comes from processed restaurant foods and the natural salt source is only 10% from foods (Howlett, E, Burton, S, Tangeri, A, Bui, M, 2012). In this section, fast food restaurants found in Omaha, Nebraska were surveyed for sodium content found in four of the major fast food chains in town. Those restaurants are Runza, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell.

 

First, the purpose of our research is to find factors that link to obesity. 68% of Americans are considered overweight or obese (Alber, Julia and Hamilton, Diane, 2012). Obesity does not happen on its own. Genetics may contribute to large body frames, significant family history such as diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems, but both of these can be managed or delayed. If such diseases are hereditary, by living a good lifestyle and with a proper diet, you can delay the disease by years. If one does not have such family history, there are socioecological factors that contribute to obesity. One of the factors found was pertinent was the serving items found in fast food restaurants. It seems that for every 5 miles, there are more than 3 fast food restaurants. The most prevalent fast food chains that are in Omaha were the four mentioned in the introduction of this essay. Previously mentioned, prices, calories, variety of food menu items, fats, sugar, and now sodium and its possible link to obesity.

 

The maximum of sodium intake that is allowed to consume is 2300mg of sodium. Let us keep that in mind when beginning to break down restaurant menus. To begin, let us start with Runza. Runza’s ½ Lb. Double Cheeseburger is their highest calorie item. The sodium that is included in just the sandwich itself is 1,450mg of sodium. That is over half of the maximum sodium intake per day. This is not including the beverage or any side items you may want with it. Consider that you eat one of these, would this be your only meal for the day? Could this keep you full for the rest of the day? Knowing that it contains 1,450mg of sodium, which leaves you with 850mg of sodium left to consume in your day, would you proceed with eating this sandwich or would you opt out and consider a healthier option? The Jalapeno Runza Sandwich contains the least amount of calories, but has 2300mg of sodium in just the sandwich. The Chicken Sandwiches/Wraps/Strips contain an average of 1730mg of sodium. Regardless of the calories, looking at the sodium content, does it make it health or unhealthy? Even with this knowledge, some people still consume these foods multiple times in their life. Runza’s Asian Grilled Chicken Salad is part of their “healthy option” and contains 2110mg of sodium. When choosing a fast food menu item, consider all nutrition factors and not just the caloric value.

 

Burger King’s Whopper items contain an average of 1047mg of sodium. This is taking all of the Whopper’s and getting the average among all of them. Their Whopper Jr sandwiches average about 460mg of sodium. Their Chicken nuggets average 1094mg of sodium. They may contain less sugar, but contain high value of sodium. Burger King’s Garden Fresh Salads contain an average of 756mg with salad dressing and 1960mg of sodium with dressing. Their BK Breakfast menu items average 2460mg of sodium without sides. As you can see, choosing the wrong item, even if it is considered relatively healthy, surpassed the daily sodium intake.

 

Taco Bell’s Burritos average 2200mg of sodium and their Chipotle Chicken Loader Griller at 810mg of sodium. This is just the burrito itself, excluding sides. Their Fiesta Taco Salad has a total of 1590mg of sodium and their Cheese Roll has 430mg of sodium. The Double Decker Taco Supreme has 730mg of sodium and their vegetarian menu items average out 330mg of sodium. The McDonald’s menu item has over 100 items and is lengthy, but managed to average out the common items. Their burger items have an average of 1310mg of sodium. Their Chicken and Fish have an average of 1200mg of sodium. Their breakfast menu items have an average of 1500mg of sodium. Finally, their Flurries and Shakes contain an average of 500mg of sodium.

 

If sodium is linked to hypertension and possibly obesity, you can see that fast food restaurants aid our bodies in having health risks and becoming obese. With looking at the numbers provided on sodium and the daily recommended maximum, it is very easy to surpass the maximum daily value of sodium in just one meal. Consider these substances the next time you decide to buy fast food and hopefully you will make a wise choice.

In a sociological perspective in looking at obesity, we see that there are socioecological factors such as, easy access to any form of entertainment such as, T.V, Wi-Fi, phones, games, just technology in general. Majority of fast food provide Wi-Fi to customers which can lead to a person prolonging their stay at the fast food restaurant. With the free Wi-Fi being provided, most millennials find themselves on their phone accessing social media or any other form of entertainment and less engaging in human social contact. With this being said, it makes a consumer more complacent and less likely to be active. Being sedentary has its downfall. Being sedentary most of your time contributes to being less active and bored. Boredom can lead to one eating even when they are not hungry, thus overeating. In the article “Assessing the Online Social Environment for Surveillance of Obesity Prevalence”, the authors did a study on people living in New York and how those that watch more TV resulted in being obese and those who engage in activities are less likely to be obese. There are many television shows, but there are also web based series that are available 24/7 and for free. Due to all forms of social media and entertainment, this leads to people being less active and less likely to engage in social interaction. Fast food restaurants make it extremely easy and affordable for consumers to buy their products. For the convenience of consumers, most- fast food restaurants will have your meal ready within less than 5 minutes. We have turned into an “instant gratification” generation and are less patient and less likely to prepare meals and to take time to buy groceries whenever you actually need them because it is considered time consuming (Alber, Julia and Hamilton, Diane, 2012).

Conclusion

In conclusion, when analyzing our data on fast food restaurants, you can tell instantly that all items are unhealthy even if the fast food corporations claim there are “healthy options”. Omaha has hundreds of fast food restaurants in place, especially near colleges and universities for the convenience of students and faculty. There are also fast food restaurants near other companies and retail stores. This is strategically placed for the convenience of working Americans and students. The percent of obesity in America increases every year and fast food corporations must be put to a halt on their foods. They must be regulated and held accountable for the way they process their food. Hopefully that this research project helps readers view fast food in a new light and to make healthier choices, regardless if you already live a healthy lifestyle or not.

References

Alber, Julia and Hamilton, Diane, Using the Socio-Ecological Model to Analyze US Policies for Managing Obesity, 2012

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Cook, N. R., Cutler, J. A., Obarzanek, E., Buring, J. E., Rexrode, K. M., Kumanyika, S. K., Appel, L. J., & Whelton, P. K. (2007). Long term effects of dietary sodium reduction on cardiovascular disease outcomes: observational follow-up of the trials of hypertension prevention (TOHP). BMJ, 334, 885

FDA “U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” Talking About Trans Fat: What You Need to Know. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.

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Healthy Guide. “Heart Healthy Diet Tips.” : Lower Cholesterol, Prevent Heart Disease and Improve Your Cardiovascular Health. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.

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“The relationship of obesity and cardiovascular disease” The University of Texas School of Public Health, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2011. Web. 26 April 2016.

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Soderlin, Barbara. “FDA’s Ban on Trans Fats Puts ConAgra, Other Food Giants to the Taste Test.” Live Well Nebraska.17 June 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Mcmahan, Shari, Jeffery Hampl, and Yosuke Chikamoto.”A “Fat” Tax: Knowledge and Attitudes of Snack Food Taxing among College Students.”American Journal of Health Education 34.6 (2003): 329-36. Web.

McDonald’s Nutritional Information, 2016

Miller, Daniel P., and Jina Chang. “Parental Work Schedules and Child Overweight or Obesity: Does Family StructureMatter?” Fam Relat Journal of Marriage and Family 77.5 (2015): 1266-281. Web.

Obesity Society. “Your Weight and Diabetes.” – The Obesity Society. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

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