Seven years ago, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock vividly demonstrated the consequences of trying to sustain yourself on a diet of fast food. After just four weeks, Spurlock's health had deteriorated to the point that his physician warned him he was putting his life in serious jeopardy if he continued the experiment.
The remarkable documentary, Super Size Me, ended up earning the Writers Guild of America award for Best Documentary Screenplay in 2005.
I've previously considered it to be a powerful illustration of the dangers of a fast food diet, but now writer and comedian Tom Naughton has come out with the video "Fat Head," which claims the message in Super Size Me is full of baloney.
Is Eating Fast Food Really as Bad as Super Size Me Claims it Is?
In Fat Head, Naughton eats a fast-food diet for 28 days and, unlike Spurlock who gained weight, actually lost about 12 pounds. There were differences in their diets, though, one of the most glaring of which was Naughton's beverage choice, which included water and iced tea, compared to Spurlock's reported gallon of soda a day.
Naughton also skipped French fries at times and removed much of the bread from his meals, which in and of itself could account for his weight loss, especially if he was consuming a lot of refined carbs before.
He also calls out Spurlock's reported daily consumption of 5,000 calories, which Naughton claims is virtually impossible when you eat three reasonable fast-food meals a day -- and as he was unable to get Spurlock's food log, what exactly Spurlock ate while filming remains a mystery.
Still, Super Size Me was clearly a documentary taken to the extreme and intended to prove an important point -- that eating fast food really does take a toll on your body.
But Naughton's Fat Head also has some important points to share, and in my opinion the most poignant have nothing to do with his critique of Super Size Me and everything to do with his calling out the untruths that have infiltrated mainstream nutritional dogma.
Is Obesity Not Really an Epidemic?
Naughton claims that the obesity epidemic is wildly exaggerated based upon the government reclassification based upon BMI in the late '90s.
There is probably some merit to that argument as there are many very fit individuals who have body fat measurements under 15% and many under 10% who have 20-30 pounds of extra muscle NOT fat and they are classified as obese. That is because BMI in no way, shape or form differentiates between the two and is only a very superficial assessment. It is used because it only requires height and weight and is easy to obtain.
BMI, which gauges weight in relation to height, is only a crude way to judge obesity-related risks. It does not measure where fat is on your body or how muscular you might be. Athletes and completely out-of-shape people can have similar BMI scores, for instance, and previous research has demonstrated that a potbelly is a better predictor of heart trouble than total weight.
So you can't use a simple number on a scale to gauge your overall health, nor can you rely solely on your body mass index which is light years inferior to even the worst method of measuring body fat.
The ideal way to know if you are overweight is to measure your body fat levels.
Can You be Overweight and Healthy?
Your body is designed to operate best when it's at an ideal weight, which varies slightly from person to person. Carrying around extra pounds of fat will inevitably increase your risk of developing just about every chronic degenerative disease, so the idea that you can be overweight, or even obese, and still be in optimal health, can easily lead you down the wrong path.
However, it is certainly possible to be overweight and healthy, or thin and unhealthy. One report in The Archives of Internal Medicine found that half of the overweight people and one-third of obese people in the study were "metabolically healthy" with healthy levels of "good" cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose.
At the same time, about one out of four slim people in the study actually had at least two cardiovascular risk factors typically associated with obesity.
The Truth About Cholesterol and Saturated Fat
I commend Naughton for bringing to light the major myths that have perpetuated society regarding the "evils" of cholesterol and saturated fat.
A misguided fallacy that persists to this day is the belief that saturated fat will increase your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
The truth is, saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources provide a concentrated source of energy in your diet, and they provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone-like substances, among many other essential benefits.
This flawed theory was largely spread by Ancel Keys, a diet researcher for whom military K-rations are named, and it was because of his lipid hypothesis that Americans were soon encouraged to cut out butter, red meat, animal fats, eggs, dairy and other "artery clogging" fats from their diets -- a radical change at that time that has continued to this day.
However, numerous studies have shown that Keys' theory was wrong and saturated fats are actually healthy. And at the same time, the cholesterol that is portrayed as the dietary villain that will destroy your health is actually important for your health, too, and NOT the cause of heart disease. These are topics I've written about extensively, and you can read more of the details of the cholesterol myth here.
So what Naughton's film does an excellent job of is calling out these long-standing nutritional myths. As is stated on his Web site:
"Having low cholesterol is unhealthy. Lowfat diets can lead to depression and type II diabetes. Saturated fat doesn't cause heart disease -- but sugars, starches and processed vegetable oils do."
These statements are all right on … as are these:
- "There's never been a single study that proves saturated fat causes heart disease.
- As heart-disease rates were skyrocketing in the mid-1900s, consumption of animal fat was going down, not up. Consumption of vegetable oils, however, was going up dramatically.
- Half of all heart-attack victims have normal or low cholesterol. Autopsies performed on heart-attack victims routinely reveal plaque-filled arteries in people whose cholesterol was low (as low as 115 in one case).
- Kids who were diagnosed as suffering from ADD have been successfully treated by re-introducing natural saturated fats into their diets. Your brain is made largely of fat.
- Many epileptics have reduced or eliminated seizures by adopting a diet low in sugar and starch and high in saturated animal fats."
Unfortunately, the message that you can therefore get your healthy saturated fats by eating at McDonald's is misleading at best -- and actually incredibly harmful for his viewers.
Fast-Food is Not Health Food
You may be able to eat carefully chosen fast-food items for a month and lose weight the way Naughton did.
But why would you?
Even if you don't gain weight, you will inevitably expose yourself to a variety of health-harming substances. I've outlined many of the problems with fast-food menu items here, but in a nutshell these are heavily processed foods, made from feedlot animals, pumped full of synthetic hormones and antibiotics, with added sugar, fructose, salt and preservatives.
Even the seemingly healthy menu items are loaded with surprising additives.
Further, studies have shown that eating fast food just twice a week DOUBLES your risk of developing insulin resistance and can make you gain 10 pounds, compared to eating it just once a week, for example. Insulin resistance, as I've discussed on many occasions, is one of THE primary driving factors behind most of the diseases we currently struggle with, from diabetes to cancer and heart disease...
The bottom line is that if you want to stay healthy, and keep your children healthy, you have to avoid fast food and other processed foods, and have someone, you, your spouse or someone you pay, invest some time in your kitchen, cooking from scratch.