The Faster the Food – the Greater the Risk?

This weekend, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion following a public viewing of the documentary Super Size Me.

The event was part of the University of Alberta’s Centenary Celebrations and was co-hosted by the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry’s Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine program and the Edmonton Public Library in their film series called “Good Medicine”.

As a panelist, I had the opportunity to see the film again and to reflect on what the film is actually about.

Of course, given that the film shows how Morgan Spurlock super sizes himself by eating nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, this film can easily be interpreted to simply show how bad fast food is for you.

While there is no question that given its high content of fat, sugar and salt, fast food is certainly not the most nutritious food, to me, this is not what the film actually proves.

In fact, when you think about it, Morgan could have splurged on 5000 KCal a day of even the most nutritious and expensive foods for 30 days and probably have gained as much weight and felt as sick in the end. Yes, you can gain weight on healthy foods!

Even the most pricey restaurants, do not necessarily design their meals to be healthy and balanced and I am probably not the only one who has eaten over 2500 KCal in food and wine at a single meal even in restaurants featuring celebrity chefs – no shortage of fat, sugar and salt in those foods either.

So eating at McDonald’s was just a cheaper way to make this film – no doubt, had Morgan eaten all his meals at a 3-star restaurant, he would have needed a much larger budget for his film. In other words – this was just a “cheap” shot at McDonald’s.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing healthy about McDonald’s or most of the food you can get at any fast food chain. But the film does not prove this.

What the film does show though, is that eating 5000 KCal a day can lead to weight gain and make you feel pretty sick. What the film also shows is that this is quite easy to do on fast food. Part of this is because the food is so cheap (=affordable). But another important reason why it is so easy to overeat is because the food is designed to be eaten fast.

I have previously blogged about the notion that the problem with fast food is more the “fast” than the “food” (see my post No Time to be Thin). It is indeed very hard to significantly overeat on “slow” food. This is because, when you eat slow, you will be quite full long before you have managed to tuck away 2000 KCal at a single meal. In fact, the bulkier and greater the volume of the food (i.e. the lower the caloric density), the harder it is to eat 2000 KCal at a single meal.

In the film Morgan also criticizes McDonald’s for offering to super size your order (which they have since stopped doing). This, however, is also not so different from what happens in any restaurant, where the servers are trained to offer an appetizer, salad, dessert and more wine if you don’t remember to order these extra calories yourself. They will also be happy to “super size” your steak order by offering to add a lobster tail or extra cream or cheese on you baked potato.

So here is what I think the film does show:

a) eating 5000 KCal a day leads to weight gain, which in turn is likely to make you sick

b) McDonald’s (and no doubt other fast food restaurants) make it easy and affordable for you to do so

c) McDonald’s (and virtually every other restaurant I know of) wants you to eat more and will try any trick in the book to get you to do so

How do we deal with this – for one, we could begin by posting calories on ALL menus – hopefully a disincentive to overeating, no matter how fast or slow the food.