Three Big Macs a Day
Today we're going make a frontal assault against one specific manifestation of pop food woo: the notion that the iconic and oft-maligned McDonald's Big Mac is among the most unhealthy foods in the world. This notion is popular among organic proponents, foodies, and the majority of the population who conflate fast food with unhealthy food. It's gotten to the point that virtue signaling by vilifying the Big Mac has become a de facto requirement of the modern foodie movement.
Many foodies will typically throw up their hands in horror at the prospect of eating even a single Big Mac, let alone one every day. But food science shows that such a reaction is unjustified. Nutritional science just doesn't work that way. So to hammer the point home, I want to take this to an extreme: three Big Macs, eaten in a single day. According to pop fearmongering, this sounds like it should trigger an immediate trip to the emergency room. But it doesn't. In fact, the truth is so far from that, I'm hoping you will be surprised.
And really, the point today has nothing to do with McDonald's or the Big Mac. It has to do with any normal food item that has some foodie stigma attached to it. A candy bar, a pizza, or a quart of ice cream aren't going to hurt you. They all contain things your body needs, and often they contain excesses of other things that your body doesn't want, but that won't cause any issue at all if they're integrated into a diverse diet.
For the actual eating habits of people and comparisons to what we currently consider ideal, I'm going by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, a publication of the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. So, with apologies to our overseas listeners, this episode is America-centric. But that's OK, because Americans are almost always the ones held up as an example of the world's least healthiest eaters. Here are the report's three bullet points for the chapter "Current Eating Patterns in the United States":
So it's a fact that Americans are missing the mark. And one place that I see the Finger of Blame pointed for this problem is fast food; specifically, McDonald's; and even more specifically, the world's single best-known food product, the famous Big Mac hamburger. The purpose of today's episode is to drill to the root of this puzzlingly widespread belief. Is the Big Mac indeed representative of America's nutrition problem?
The answer, as we're now going to prove, is a resounding no. In fact, we're going to show that not simply one, not even two, but three Big Mac hamburgers a day can be part of a nutritious and healthy diet — one that, if not perfect, is substantially better than what most people eat each day. The reason for this is simple: people are generally ignorant about nutrition, believing healthy eating to require strict adherence to certain things and avoidance of others. The simple fact is that human beings are omnivorous. We can, and do, live quite well on extremely varied diets. Historically, the Inuit did perfectly fine on a diet consisting mainly of saturated fat, the Maasai on cow's milk and blood loaded with cholesterol, Paleolithic Europeans on a staple of starchy grains and tubers with a little of everything else sprinkled in. The notion that a Big Mac's full complement of diverse ingredients would be lacking in nutrition is demonstrably wrong; as is the belief that it contains unusually large amounts of things we normally think of as bad. It does have a couple excesses, but as we'll see they're not unusual, and by themselves not problematic.
As McDonald's is constantly under pressure from food activist groups, they publish all of their sources in every country on their website. If you want to know where they source their ketchup or their pickles in France, it's right there.
The Big Mac consists of the bun, the 100% USDA-inspected beef patty seasoned with salt and pepper (there was never any truth to urban legends that the beef contains "fillers" or anything else), shredded lettuce, special sauce, American cheese, pickle slices, and onions. With the exception of the special sauce, these are all sourced from the same food suppliers who sell the same stuff to almost all restaurants. The special sauce is their own custom variation on Thousand Island dressing, made for them by a major food packer that creates ingredients for many restaurants and food manufacturers. The other ingredients are all basically what you'd buy at the supermarket to make a hamburger with these same toppings. Though some people claim McDonald's adds huge amounts of salt and sugar to their ingredients, according to the published lists — which are scrutinized all the time — it's simply not true.
In 2012, McDonald's executive chef made a Big Mac, special sauce included, on YouTube, using supermarket sourced ingredients:
So let's see what three of these bad boys will do to our daily diet. We'll look at the nutritional content of a Big Mac — both the good and the bad — and compare it to the daily recommendations. And we're going to triple everything, because even three Big Macs can be part of a perfectly healthy daily diet.
First, the basics. Three Big Macs come to 1,610 calories. That's well under the 2,000 calorie recommended goal for an adult. This most basic nutritional metric tells us that if you ate three Big Macs every single day, and took in no other calories, you'd lose weight. That's the first surprise, and it's a big one for many people.
Our meal also scores well on carbs. Three Big Macs gives you only 45% of the recommended upper limit; and as there are no essential carbohydrates, this a great thing. Bet you never realized three Big Macs could be part of an Atkins-style low-carb diet.
Total sugar is not an issue. Three Big Macs deliver 26 grams of total sugars, about half of what the recommended upper limit.
The three Big Macs also give us only 79% of the cholesterol intake we ideally want to stay below. Three Big Macs: low carbs, low calorie, low sugar, and low cholesterol.
However they are also low in most vitamins and minerals. They give a decent amount of Vitamin A, calcium, and iron, but if you ate nothing else every single day, you'd probably want to take a good multivitamin supplement. Even without that, three Big Macs plus an orange would meet most of your body's needs for a day, plus still be low carb, low cholesterol, and low calorie.
Not surprisingly, three Big Macs with their six beef patties give you a fantastic amount of protein. The average person wants about 50 grams a day; three Big Macs deliver 75.
Now let's look at the unwanted compounds where the Big Macs go over. Specifically, fats and sodium. You'd be over the recommended daily limit on all three, but surprisingly, only a little bit. You'd get 118% of your recommended sodium allowance, 131% of the recommended fat allowance, and 150% of the saturated fat allowance.
Let's look at each of these in closer detail. Three Big Macs deliver 2.8 grams of sodium. The recommended upper limit is about 2.3 grams. However, the average American goes way over that. Adult men average about 4.2 grams; adult women average about 3.2. So even though three Big Macs deliver more sodium than you want, they deliver much less than the average person eats on an average day. The myth that the Big Mac delivers unusually high sodium is busted.
Of all the nutrients for which data was available and that I evaluated, only fat, including saturated fat, was problematic. This comes from all the beef. It's recommended to keep total fats to no more than 25-35% of all your calories; but 48% of the calories in Big Macs come from fats, so our three Big Macs would give us more fat than the average person eats on an average day. For saturated fats, it's recommended to keep it to less than 10% of your total daily calories; but 17% of the calories in a Big Mac are from saturated fats, quite a bit more than the 11% of their calories that the average person gets in this way.
If the fats are a deal breaker for you, then drop one of the three Big Macs, and replace it with 540 other calories from some low-fat source. There are lots of ways to build a healthy daily diet, and without any reservations, Big Macs can be a part of that.
You shouldn't misinterpret this to mean I'm saying you should eat multiple Big Macs every day, which will no doubt be the default straw man criticism of this episode. The best diets are diverse and include a little bit of many different foods; that's the best way to make sure you get all the nutrient categories well covered. However it's also true that pretty much everyone in the United States — in fact, nearly everyone in every developed country — gets more than enough of the required nutrients, which as our paleolithic ancestors proved, isn't all that hard to do. Our real problem is that most of us eat too much. We don't need mythical "superfoods"; we simply need less of what we already eat.
Focus on variety and eating less overall. Limit your calories from added sugar and saturated fats. Reduce your sodium intake. Beyond that, relax and enjoy food. As we've proven, there really aren't any normal foods that can't fit into a healthy diet — even as many Big Macs as you're likely to want.
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