Yesterday MD and I spent all afternoon and into the evening being interviewed on film (on electrons, really. It was a digital camera) for a movie being put together as a counterpoint for the much ballyhooed Supersize Me.
The filmmaker is Tom Naughton, who contacted us through this blog. He arrived, and after a few pleasantries and a cold drink (non-alcoholic) he set up his stuff, and we got started. He had prepared a large number of questions (about one and three quarters pages of them, single spaced) and proceeded to work through them, while letting our answers provoke other questions. I went first, then MD. The entire affair took about five and a half hours–it will be interesting to see how much makes it into the movie.
Tom watched Supersize Me a while back and was struck by the sort of dishonesty of the whole thing. MD and I watched it for the first time the night before the filming so that we would at least know some of the specifics before we were under the questioning gun and we felt the same way that Tom did, more about which later. Tom decided to make his own version of such a movie with a little different twist: he decided to eat fast food for a month to see if he could lose weight. He ate hamburgers without the buns, didn’t drink the high-fructose-corn-syrup laden soft drinks, but had water or ice tea instead, and, in general, followed a fast-food low-carb diet. He ended having the exact opposite experience as did Morgan Spurlock (the star of Supersize Me): he lost weight and improved his lipid profile.
The message he wants to get out is that although one can be bad with disastrous health consequences at McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets, one can also be good with attendant good health consequences. It’s not that McDonald’s is inherently bad; it’s just that people usually make bad choices when they go there, but they don’t have to. I can go to my local grocery store and buy a steak and tomatoes (good) or I can go there and buy cigarettes (bad). If I choose to buy the cigarettes, it’s not the store’s fault, it’s mine. (I know, I know, the store is culpable for even having cigarettes available for purchase. But as long as it’s legal to sell cigarettes (and it is) and as long as people want to buy them (and they do), stores are going to sell them.)
When MD and I watched Supersize Me, which I recommend everyone watch, we were stunned at the lack of nutritional knowledge demonstrated by the physicians involved. Before the specifics, for those who haven’t seen the movie, I’ll synopsize. The filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days just to see what would happen. His rule was that he had to eat everything on the menu at least once and if, when he ordered, the person behind the counter asked him if he wanted it supersized, the answer would always be ‘yes.’ He had a complete medical workup (including a rectal exam, which appeared in the movie), EKG, and lab analysis. He started out at about 185 pounds with normal EKG and lab (and rectum, one assumes). He scheduled repeat weighings and lab work weekly.
As the movie progressed Mr. Spurlock gained more and more weight and watched his blood work deteriorate. By the end of the movie he had gained 25 pounds and his triglycerides and liver enzymes had gone South on him. Throughout he visited his primary care doctor and a gastroenterologist numerous times. He had a cardiologist evaluate him to start out and look in on him at some point during the progress of his experiment.. And he had a creepy vegetarian live-in girlfriend who couldn’t believe he was risking his health by, God forbid, eating all that meat. She gave him a last meal of a bunch of vegetarian swill and welcomed him back into the world of ‘good, healthy food’ with another big meal of vegetarian swill. At the end of the movie a sort of epilogue scrolled by telling of what happened to a number of people appearing in the show and telling that it took Mr. Spurlock a full nine months to lose the 25 pounds he had gained going face down at McDonald’s for a month.
All in all the movie was kind of funny and definitely enjoyable to watch, but there was so much idiocy masquerading as truth and good sense that I don’t know where to begin.
First, the creepy vegetarian girlfriend got to me. She is so typical of people I run into all the time at various social functions. Talk to them long enough and the conversation gets around to the what-do-you-do-for-a-living stage. If I’m in the mood and I really describe what I do, these people (not everyone, just the ones like the creepy girlfriend) launch into whatever their particular brand of nutritional idiocy is and end up telling me what they believe the optimal diet is. I always want to ask them what data they base all their pontificating on, but I usually just save my breath. The girlfriend in this movie is one of those. She is so full of her self-righteous I-know-everything-about-nutrition vegetarianism that it made me want to puke. It’s no wonder the boyfriend wanted to spend a month at McDonald’s.
Second, the doctors who took part in Mr. Spurlock’s care, particularly the family practitioner that got the most airtime and, apparently, spent the most time dealing with Mr. Spurlock, certainly substantiated the notion that doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. The medical literature is full of data showing that fructose causes fatty liver disease in much the same way that alcohol does. Geese are force fed corn (the source of high-fructose corn syrup) to make them develop fatty livers that are sold as foie gras. The same thing happens to people with fructose. Consume a lot of fructose, your liver fills up with fat, and, before you know it, you’ve got abnormalities in your liver tests. This is precisely what happened to Mr. Spurlock. He kept a diary of everything he ate, and at the end of the movie the tally showed that he had consumed 30 pounds of sugar over the month. Since most of this was in the form of high-fructose corn syrup there is little wonder that he developed a fatty liver. It was not obvious, however, to his family practitioner who kept repeating “I just can’t believe a high-fat diet could do this so quickly.” It had nothing to do with the fat in the diet–it was all caused by the sugar intake. In fact, during the tally Mr. Spurlock calculated that he had eaten 12 pounds of fat during the month. Twelve pounds of fat and 30 pounds of sugar, yet his doctor called his diet a high-fat diet. Running the math on the fat gives us about 6 ounces of fat per day–I wouldn’t be surprised if I ate that much pretty regularly and I don ‘t have a fatty liver. Of course I don’t combine it with a pound of high-fructose corn syrup per day either.
Third, the fact that it took Mr. Spurlock nine months to lose his 25 pounds is a testament to how crummy the creepy girlfriend’s vegetarian diet really is. Were Mr. Spurlock to have gone on a good low-carb diet, I suspect he would have lost the weight within a month.
And, finally, I’m not so sure that Mr. Spurlock really ate what he claimed he ate or gained what he claimed to gain. According to Tom Naughton a number of people have asked to see Mr. Spurlock’s food diary that he supposedly kept so meticulously, but so far he hasn’t been forthcoming with it. Based on my experience it would be difficult for a young, healthy male to force feed himself, eating only three meals per day, enough to gain 25 pounds in a month. A number of years ago a researcher ran a study that has since become legendary trying to do this very thing. He force fed inmates in a prison in Vermont in an effort to see how quickly they would gain weight. Turned out to be not very quickly. In fact, many had difficulty in gaining much at all despite consuming huge amounts of food. In this study, a gain of ten percent of body weight was huge; Mr. Spurlock gained about 15 percent in one month.
I had my own experience as a youth in trying to gain weight. I played college football and thought I was underweight. I ate everything that wasn’t red hot or nailed down. I even forced myself to take this nauseating liquid called Weight-On that tasted like castor oil. Despite all my best efforts, I couldn’t gain a pound. Unfortunately, I ultimately got my wish to gain weight, but by that time, I didn’t want it. In fact, I wanted my weight to go the other way. Later in life weight comes on easily; early in life you have to fight for it. In my opinion it would be pretty difficult for a well-conditioned young male to gain 25 pounds in a month eating as Mr. Spurlock did. I would love to see the real data.
As to the not so subtle message of the movie, which was clearly that McDonald’s and, by extension, other fast food places are at fault for the obesity epidemic in America, I’m not sure that’s really the case. As Tom Naughton will show in his film, it’s possible to eat every day in these same restaurants and lose weight and reduce blood lipids. That being the case, it’s not the restaurants, it’s the food choices people make in the restaurants.
The New York Times had a recent article about all the fast food companies developing huge burgers and other entrees, containing 700-1000 calories each, to meet the demand of their consumers. The restaurants made these items available and they soon became huge sellers. Why? Because that’s what customers want. Virtually every fast food company developed low-fat, ‘healthy’ selections because in surveys that’s what people told them they wanted: more ‘healthy’ choices. But when it comes to voting with the bucks instead of filling out a survey, the huge burgers win by a landslide.
Restaurants say offering lumberjack portions of fat and sodium-laden food is giving customers what they want and providing them with choices. ”Some of our most successful products over the past few years have been indulgent products, whether it be the Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich, the Angus Steak Burger, the Chicken Fries product or the Stackers,” said Russ Klein, chief marketing officer at Burger King.
(An aside: I love the industry word for these products: ‘indulgent’ products. Business people have a wonderful way with euphemisms. I remember 10 or 12 years ago when we (MD and I and our entire family) made our ill-fated foray into the restaurant business and were looking for a place to lease. One of the property development guys from the main office of the franchisor came to visit and we went all over town looking. He identified one of the malls in town that we looked at as an ‘upscale’ mall. We went to visit a different mall that was the opposite of upscale, which he identified as a ‘value-oriented’ mall. That’s kind of become a family joke. Whenever we see any kind of establishment that’s down at the heels, we always refer to it as value oriented.)
[A Burger King spokesman] says he agrees obesity is a societal problem, but Burger King’s menu offers a full spectrum of choices. ”We have everything from salads to veggie burgers to grilled chicken,” he said. ”On their hamburgers, people can say ‘hold the mayo’ or they can go bun-less. Somebody who wants to be in control of their diet can do it at Burger King.”
And so it all comes back to individual choice. As Tom Naughton’s movie will show, you have it your way and lose weight or have it their way and gain.
I promise that tomorrow I will address the saturated fat study. I just had to get all this down today while it was fresh in my mind.