Super Sized Fast Food Phobia

Unlike what's said in highly dramatized Hollywood shockumentaries, fast food is not especially unhealthy.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Fads, Health

Skeptoid #88
February 19, 2008
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Also available in Spanish
 

Fast Food Phobia
Artwork: Nathan Bebb

Join me for a cheeseburger and a Coke as we put our feet up, get grease all over ourselves, and examine the deeply-rooted pop culture belief that fast food is bad for you. And here's a thing of honey-mustard sauce to drink for dessert.

The questionable nutritional value of fast food, and of McDonald's in particular, came under its closest scrutiny when documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released Super Size Me in 2004. The movie documented his own experience living exclusively on McDonald's food for 30 days. He averaged 5,000 calories a day, and when you consider that a Big Mac contains only 510 calories, you know that he was really packing it in. He super-sized every meal that was offered. Most dramatic was Spurlock's reported health problems. Not only did he gain 13% of his body weight, he also developed liver problems, depression and other psychological effects, and sexual dysfunction. Super Size Me also contained a large amount of editorial content about how McDonald's deliberately forces cheap, unhealthy food onto an unsuspecting public for profit.

Super Size Me was the most popular documentary of the year, and was nominated for an academy award. Its claims were generally accepted without critique by nearly everyone who watched it or even just heard about it. But this result was virtually guaranteed by Spurlock's choice of subject matter. McDonald's is probably the world's easiest target. It's always popular to be anticorporate; it's always popular to bash fast foods, and audiences are generally well predisposed to welcome any information that supports these concepts.

Spurlock's results were only presented in his movie. No actual data was published or subjected to any scrutiny or peer review. We have only his verbal statements to go on, plus the lines delivered onscreen by the doctor and nutritionist who performed in his movie. This is a Hollywood entertainment, it's not valid scientific data. However, for the sake of argument, my inclination is to give Spurlock the benefit of the doubt and accept his claims as valid, and accept the movie dialog as actual opinions of unbiased health professionals. From the perspective of responsible empiricism, that's a stretch, but I'm willing to do it. The problem is that Spurlock's results are highly deviant from other research on the same subject.

You see, Morgan Spurlock is not the only person to have ever tested fast-food-only diets, or even McDonald's-only diets. After his movie came out, many people repeated his experiment themselves, including a number of scientific institutions that applied controls and conducted the research in a scientific manner. At least three other documentary movies were made, Bowling for Morgan, Portion Size Me, and Me and Mickey D, in which the filmmakers lived exclusively on McDonald's food for 30 days but (unlike Spurlock) did not force themselves to overeat when they were not hungry. All filmmakers lost weight during the period and suffered no ill effects; and the subjects in Portion Size Me, which was scientifically controlled, also had improved cholesterol.

Most famously, Swedish scientist Fredrik Nyström conducted an experiment with eighteen students; only he upped the ante — considerably. Rather than Spurlock's 5,000 calories per day, Nyström's subjects were required to consume a measured 6,000 calories per day. The food was controlled to ensure that most of the calories were from saturated fats. The subjects were not allowed to exercise during the 30 days, also unlike Spurlock, who made sure that he walked a normal distance every day. Considering these differences, Nyström's subjects should have been considerably worse off than Spurlock was, but they weren't. They did all gain 5-15% extra body weight, and complained of feeling tired; but none suffered any other negative effects. There were no mysterious psychological problems, no strange conditions that baffled the doctors. Nyström and his medical staff noted no dangerous changes at all. After his experiment, Nyström was asked his opinion of Spurlock's extreme reaction, especially his liver problems. Having never examined Spurlock, Nyström could only guess, but among two of his perfectly reasonable hypotheses were that Spurlock may have had pre-existing undiagnosed liver problems; or that his normally vegetarian diet may have rendered his liver poorly prepared to suddenly deal with a diet high in carbohydrates and saturated fat, a problem that anyone eating a normal diet would not experience. Any cynic can also easily propose a third possibility, that Spurlock was simply trying to make as dramatic, engaging, and commercial a movie as he could, which is the goal of every filmmaker.

Public relations required McDonald's to respond to Super Size Me, and their response was fairly low key. They basically just agreed that it's best to eat a balanced diet, and stated that any actual ill effects experienced by Spurlock were more the result of force-feeding himself 5,000 calories a day for a month, than they were indicative of anything bad about McDonald's food. Way too much of any food is going to be bad for you.

That response suggests the next thing to look at. Is McDonald's food, and other fast food in general, actually bad for you? Dr. Dean Edell once took a call on his radio show from a woman whose teenage daughter ate a fast food hamburger every day. The woman was worried that her daughter would develop malnutrition. Quite the contrary, said Dr. Edell: She might gain weight if she ate a lot of them, but malnutrition is that last thing she should worry about. A hamburger is actually quite a balanced meal, rich with just about every nutrient. Add a slice of cheese and it even contains all four food groups. Fast food hamburgers are excellent sources of protein, calcium, and iron.

McDonald's hamburgers are not even as grossly calorific as most people probably think. Their biggest burger, the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, contains 740 calories. Three of those a day, which is more than anyone reasonably eats, still amounts to a good, healthy, slim 2,200 calorie diet for an adult. The real offenders on fast food menus are not the hamburgers at all, but the drinks; especially the milkshakes. Where Spurlock gained his weight was from the milkshakes. McDonald's 32-ounce Chocolate Triple Thick Shake packs 1,160 calories. Personally, I can't even imagine drinking a 32-ounce shake! A more common size, the 16-ounce, is 580 calories, or slightly more than a Big Mac. McDonald's biggest breakfast will also get you: The large Deluxe Breakfast delivers 1,140 calories. This may sound like a lot, but in fact it's not really much more than any average balanced breakfast.

By now you're saying "OK fine, McDonald's food may not be as high in calories as people think, but the real reason it's bad is that it's chock-full of trans-fats, sodium, saturated fats, and cholesterol." That would be bad indeed. The United States and Canada both use a system called the Dietary Reference Intake to establish ideal levels of nutrients. These four compounds listed have an ideal level of "as low as possible", except sodium. Ideally you should take 1500mg of sodium each day, and you should not take in more than 2300mg. McDonald's poster child of evil, the Big Mac, delivers 1040mg of sodium, about 2/3 of your daily ideal. Not a problem by itself, but don't eat three of them.

The Big Mac delivers 10g of saturated fat, which is 10g more than you want; but realistically it's virtually impossible to get zero. The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend that you keep your saturated fat intake under 7% of your daily caloric intake, and the Big Mac fulfills half of that. So, in short, two Big Macs a day maxes out your recommended safe levels of saturated fat.

The Big Mac's 75mg of cholesterol represents 1/4 of the CDC and World Health Organization's daily recommended maximum. I'm not going to eat four of them a day, so that's not a problem.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Finally, the scariest mugshot on the CDC's Ten Most Wanted poster: trans-fats. Beginning in 2003 with some high-profile class action lawsuits filed against major food producers, the fast food restaurant chains have all pledged to switch to cooking oils free of trans-fats. Some have completed this, others, including McDonald's, are still completing the switch. But although it's possible to eliminate the addition of trans-fats to fried foods, some foods, like meat and some vegetables, contain naturally occurring trans-fat. 2-5% of the fat in livestock is trans-fat. Whether you order a Big Mac or barbecue your own organic filet mignon, you're getting trans-fat. McDonald's doesn't add it, and your neighborhood butcher has no way of reducing it. A big Mac (or any comparable meat of the same quantity) contains 1.5g of trans-fat, which is more than you want, but only about 8% of the daily amount the World Health Organization says you really, really need to keep it under. Eight percent — the Big Mac is hardly the monster it's made out to be.

So eat up, and I'll see you at the drive-thru.

Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly said the Nyström study had seven subjects. Eighteen is correct.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Dupont, J., White, P., Feldman E. "Saturated and Hydrogenated Fats in Food in Relation to Health." Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 1 Jun. 1991, Vol 10: 577-592.

Nyström, F.H., Lindstron, T., Kechagias, S., Ernersson, Å., O Dahlqvist, O., Lundberg, P. "Fast food based hyper-alimentation can induce rapid and profound elevation of serum alanine aminotransferase in healthy subjects." GUT. 14 Feb. 2008, Volume 57, Number 2: 649-654.

Painter, J. "EIU Prof's 'Portion Size Me' Says Bring on the Fast Food -- In Moderation." University Communications | Media Relations. Eastern Illinois University, 17 Oct. 2005. Web. 15 May. 2007. <http://www.eiu.edu/~pubaff/headline/2005/1017200590.php>

Rice, S., McAllister, E.J., Dhurandhar, N.V. "Fast food: friendly?" International Journal of Obesity. 1 Jun. 2007, Volume 31, Number 6: 884-886.

Rudolph, T., Ruempler, K., Schwedhelm, E., Tan-Andresen, J., Riederer, U., Böger, R., Maas, R. "Acute effects of various fast-food meals on vascular function and cardiovascular disease risk markers: the Hamburg Burger Trial." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1 Aug. 2007, Volume 86, Number 3: 334-340.

Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Chloride and Sulfate. Washington DC: The National Academies Press, 2005. 37-49.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Super Sized Fast Food Phobia." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 19 Feb 2008. Web. 25 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4088>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 224 comments

I don't think Mr. Dunning has watched "Forks over knives" or "Foodmatters".

Freke1, Denmark
May 11, 2013 3:09pm

You are correct. I get my information from scientific sources, not from entertainment shock-docs.

Brian Dunning, Laguna Niguel, CA
May 11, 2013 3:47pm

I read almost every single comment here and on the "In Defense of Fast Food" article on Skepticblog, and all I can say is that the comments are a sobering indication that even the skeptics community has its sacred beliefs that are impervious to reason and evidence.

It's easy to see when, say, right-wing conservative Christians deny science and evidence contradicting their sacred beliefs (the Bible, the United States, etc.) but what's less easy to see is that liberals, including many skeptics, have their sacred beliefs too and once you identify what those sacred beliefs are it's easy to see how they err in applying critical thinking to them just as much as conservatives do.

In the case of liberals, they moralize and sacralize food and they demonize big business. You can see this attitude exuding from almost every commenter here, not to mention the existence of Whole Foods and labels that state "all natural" and "organic". There's a huge emphasis in liberal culture on eating "naturally" and avoiding "processed" foods and "artificial" ingredients and feeling superior to people who eat fast food goes hand in hand with that.

The truth is, there's nothing in fast food that isn't also in anything you'd buy at the grocery store; processed food isn't bad for you; artificial ingredients aren't necessarily bad for you; you can get the missing vitamins you need from a multivitamin; lacking fiber is a minor nuisance at worst. I've been eating fast food DAILY for YEARS and I'm fine.

Marc, Cambridge, Ontario
May 13, 2013 6:44pm

There is no defense for fast food..we are omnivores and you can survive quite well on a measured diet of this bland boring garbage for a very long time.

para 2.. I see a south of border cringe here..I think (if its food related) there isnt a sacred belief, maybe its a I am happy to eat the equivalent of cardboard is their "sacre right".

The problem is, a multivitamin is the same behaviour as fast food mentality.

The group who do not get enough vitamins by perusing thefast food counters may in fact have contributing problems such as smoking, drinking and fixating on a single fast food bereft of anything that contains your aily needs.

Call them potato chps, rice bisquits, bread rolls etc etc.

Most fast food reliant folk dont go to a single restaurant or outlet.

Maybe people get obese because a lot of food is available to them and they don't want to cook..

Conversely, maybe there are some places where a bad diet is promoted or economically enforced..

I think Devo said it all.."Freedom of choice is what you want..".

That and

"we are not in pain.."..

30 or so years on, it still makes sense..

Mud, sin city, Oz
August 7, 2013 11:25pm

Check with any reputable doctor, dietician, exercise coach, or other health guru for the truth of the following:

If you consume more calories than you burn, the excess is stored for later. If later never gets here, saved calories continue to accumulate.

Duh.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
November 12, 2013 3:20pm

A well informed article. However, I feel towards the end you are sending some mixed messages. I think that's probably just because there are so many mixed messages in the literature (i.e. there is some research for low carbohydrate high fat and some research against it) However, I think you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to Super Size Me. Spurlock was definitely in it for the shock value, and the fact that his "experiment" was not repeatable by several other researchers also indicates that his method was bunk. Personally, I think the reason that he got fat was due to the lipogenic effect associated with increasing his proportion (with respect to his total caloric intake) of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (in the form of those milk shakes you mentioned and the "normal" 1L cokes he was drinking). There is plenty of research linking sugar etc to insulin and insulin to lipogenesis. I think if he didn't drink the sugar, he probably would have lost weight. Just like those other researchers found.
Just my 2c worth.

Nick, Brisbane/Australia
November 20, 2013 11:59pm

If you want that sort of thing, go to any decent restaurant or bar here in Calgary and ask for "plain old cheeseburger and fries".
Neighborhood pubs are your best bet.
It tastes way better, and has higher quality, than anything you'd find at Muck Donald's, Awful and Woozy, or Dairy Queasy.

I'm sure the same thing applies in our other cities, towns, and villages; and most of them in the States.
Even some "dives" have very good cheeseburgers and fries.

Don't get "addicted" to the standard taste of the "most famous" - you won't know what you're missing.

As for the comment about stuffing multi-thousands of calories in your cake hole every day and not burning them off - I couldn't agree more; so don't be surprised if you turn into a blimp and your cholesterol level goes through the roof.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
April 7, 2014 10:12am

"The Big Mac delivers 10g of saturated fat, which is 10g more than you want"

Really? Do any current studies show this to still be true?
Saturated fat is associated with raising HDL Cholesterol.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1386252

It appears to not be a factor in heart disease either:
http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2010/01/13/ajcn.2009.27725.abstract

Yes, groups like WHO and CDC and USDA recommend low saturated fat intake, but is their data outdated or based on assumptions?

Linda, Hollywood
June 8, 2014 4:14pm

I like the notion that people eat fast food because they are poor. As if McDonald's sodas were somehow a good value. It's just sugar, at $2 for a 100 grams. Nutritionally speaking, it's a horrible value. The cost to replace the nutritional content of a large soda is little more than a dime at the grocery store. Many other "unhealthy", high-calorie foods with high fat and sugar contents are similarly uneconomic. Sure, vegetables are more expensive, but over-spending on simple carbs and saturated fats doesn't make financial sense regardless of the price of eggplant. Oatmeal, rice, beans, fortified cereals, pasta. These are all healthier more complete foods and can be exceedingly economic depending on packaging and preparation.

Daniel, NC
September 9, 2014 1:15pm

Everything in moderation! However a cheeseburger is by no means an adequately healthy meal. Any dietician or medical doctor will tell you this. I eat fast food maybe once every two-three months now but I grew up eating it 3-5 times a week. Yes you can lose weight by eating fast food but you have to monitor the caloric intake proportionally to your body profile. I've also been a vegetarian and I can say by experience that I felt a lot better as a vegetarian vs eating fast food regularly.

Mel Cooper, Cary NC
October 5, 2014 11:13pm

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