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Just how bad is McDonald’s food?
October 28th, 2010

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Morgan Spurlock sought to find out in his 2004 documentary Super Size Me. In his film, I was interviewed and spoke about the role McDonald’s food is playing in our epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

For 30 days, Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food. All of us involved in the film, including Spurlock’s doctors, were shocked at the amount that his health deteriorated in such a short time. Before the 30 days started, we each predicted what changes we expected to see in his weight, cholesterol levels, liver enzymes and other biomarkers, but every one of us substantially underestimated how severely his health would be jeopardized. It turned out that in the 30 days, the then 32-year-old man gained 25 pounds, his cholesterol levels rose dangerously as did fatty accumulations in his liver, and he experienced mood swings, depression, heart palpitations and sexual dysfunction.

Some have said Spurlock was an idiot for eating that way, and it’s true that he did himself some major damage in those 30 days. But I’ve always felt the suffering he took upon himself by eating all his meals for that month at McDonald’s was admirable, because it served to warn millions of the all too real health dangers of eating too much fast food.

Super Size Me struck a chord for a lot of people, as it became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. And more importantly, it changed the eating habits of millions.

Now a group of physicians and other health professionals have produced a short (39 second) ad that may be one of the more controversial in advertising history. The Washington, DC-based group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)’s new “Consequences” ad takes dead aim at McDonald’s high-fat menu. The provocative ad has become a story unto itself, because it has in only a few days generated nearly one million views on YouTube, and has been covered by newspapers and broadcast media around the world, including the Wall Street Journal, U.K.’s The Guardian, CNN, the New York Times and hundreds of other media outlets.

What do you think? Is the ad a contribution to public health, or does it go too far? Even if the underlying critique of the dangers of hamburgers and other fast food is valid, does the ad accomplish its purpose, or is it too emotionally manipulative?

The ad ends by telling us to “make it vegetarian,” making it obvious that PCRM has a pro-vegetarian orientation. But with good reason. The evidence is consistent and compelling that vegetarians suffer less from the diseases associated with the typical Western diet. Vegetarians have repeatedly been shown to have lower rates of obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes, diverticular disease, constipation and gall stones. They also have lower rates of many kinds of cancer, including colon cancer and the hormone dependent cancers such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian cancer.

Do you have to be a strict vegetarian to enjoy the considerable health benefits of a vegetarian diet? No, you do not. What’s important is to eat a plant-strong diet, with a high percentage of your calories coming from whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and a low percentage coming from processed foods, sugars, unhealthy fats and animal products.

The standard American diet — in which 62 percent of calories come from processed foods, 25 percent from animal products and only 5 percent from fruits and vegetables — is nothing less than a health travesty. Our fast-food culture has produced a population with widespread chronic illness and is a primary reason that health care costs are taking a devastating toll on just about everyone.

The annual health insurance premiums paid by the average American family now exceed the gross yearly income of a full-time minimum wage worker. Every 30 seconds, someone in the U.S. files for bankruptcy due to the costs of treating a health problem. Starbucks spends more on the health insurance of its workers than it does on coffee.

Medical care costs in the U.S. have not always been this excessive. This year, we will spend more than $2.5 trillion on medical care. But in 1950, five years before Ray Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald’s restaurant, Americans only spent $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars). Even after adjusting for inflation, we now spend as much on health care every 10 days as we did in the entire year of 1950.

Has this enormous increase in spending made us healthier? Earlier this year, when the World Health Organization assessed the overall health outcomes of different nations, it placed 36 other nations ahead of the United States.

Today, we have an epidemic of largely preventable diseases. To these illnesses, Americans are losing not only their health but also their life savings. Meanwhile, the evidence keeps growing that the path to improved health lies in eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, and eating far less processed foods, sugars and animal products.

It’s striking to me that in all the heated debates we have had about health care reform, one basic fact has rarely been discussed, and that is the one thing that could dramatically bring down the costs of health care while improving the health of our people. Studies have shown that 50 to 70 percent of the nation’s health care costs are preventable, and the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat a healthier diet. If Americans were to stop overeating, to stop eating unhealthy foods and to instead eat more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer protective properties, we could have a more affordable, sustainable and effective health care system.

Is it McDonald’s fault that more than 63 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, making us the fattest nation in the history of the world? I don’t think so, because each of us is responsible for what we put in our mouths and in the mouths of our children. Plus many other fast food chains serve food that is just as harmful. But the company is playing a significant role in generating our national appetite for unhealthy foods. McDonald’s is by far the largest food advertiser in the country, spending more than one billion dollars a year on direct media advertising.

Much of McDonald’s advertising is aimed at children, and it’s been effective. Every month, approximately nine out of 10 American children eat at a McDonald’s restaurant. Most U.S. children can recognize McDonald’s before they can speak. Tragically, one in every three children born this year in the U.S. will develop diabetes in their lifetime.

Of course, fast food is not the only cause of the tragic rise of obesity and diabetes in our society. Our culture has become pathologically sedentary. Watching television and sitting in front of computer monitors for hour upon hour doesn’t help. But the high sugar and high fat foods sold by McDonald’s and the other fast food restaurants is certainly a major part of the problem. You would have to walk for seven hours without stopping to burn off the calories from a Big Mac, a Coke and an order of fries.

These comments are moderated to support respectful, non-commercial, and open-minded dialogue.

7 Responses to “Just how bad is McDonald’s food?”

  1. D.A. Colvin says:

    My dear husband and I have been healthy organic vegans for 15+ years and we’re very grateful for that healthy decision! We appreciate and are grateful for all the wonderful information you publish and share with your readers. It was wonderful to listen to you and meet you in person at the EcoFest in L.A. 15+ years ago and you’re still wonderful, eloquent, insightful, and inspiring. Thank you for your continued wonderful work! Please continue making a positive impact on many lives! Peace and Warm Wishes! :o) Please visit my Green Living Blog for like-minded green living ideas, tips, and posts. Thank you! http://bodyearthself.blogspot.com

  2. Michael Jones says:

    It’s not just Mikkie D’s, but the whole processed food industry! Joel Salatin has a great talk about it on the website “The Nation”. A few comments by him, we need to be reconnected to our food “imbilical cord”. That means not only buying whole foods, but actually GROWING them as well. He stated that the number of lawns grown if converted to gardens with a few chickens in the US could very well FEED everyone. It is somewhat funny, we are farmers…but of grass…know any good recipes?

  3. Peter Silverman says:

    I won’t eat at MacDonalds because of all the flour, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and other processed carbohydrates. It makes sense to me that processed foods are a bad idea, since healthy cultures seem to get sick when they start eating our food. It doesn’t seem clear though that it’s the animal. products or saturated fact that’s the problem. Plenty of cultures that eat whole foods are healthy, both the ones that are plant based and the ones that are animal based.

  4. Alice says:

    I just discovered your website. I think the ad is fantastic. It doesn’t go too far at all. I’ve been trying to get the same message across for many, many years but now I’m just going to forward that video.

    Thank you for all your great work. I have been a fan for a longtime.

  5. Billie says:

    It’s a choice. Not to say that it’s an easy one but it is one’s responsibility to take care of themself. Aside from the fact that we are so busy that the convenience of this poison is tempting, but it is in fact cheaper to eat off of the value menu at a fast food restaurant than it is to eat what truly nourishes us. Maybe if we could somehow compare the cost of all the medications vs a healthy body from making the right food choices it would convince more people what they need. It’s such a vicious cycle and I truly believe it is an addiction. I pray that our society can start living more sustainable lives not only for themselves but for the environment.

  6. Jillann says:

    when a company is placing poison into the air, that will give disease and illness, we know this is wrong & we have fought for changes because it’s not good for the wellness of all… why is it any different when a company producing food for us is poisoning our systems with foods that will give us over time many disease and illnesses…
    those that know it is wrong & turn the heads & try not to make changes are just as those that are doing it…
    companies that have been shown that what they are making & selling to the public is making them sick and continues in the name of business(money) is just as guilty as if the took a poison and injected into someone… once you know this is hurting & even killing your mankind how can you continue???
    people that have not gotten the information as they should can not be made to blame… yes many say well your not going to take my double bugers away from me… ok let them make them then but it’s just so wrong for companies to know this information and continue as they are…
    targeting childern is not right not right at all…
    but those that know just have to keep at it and try their best to let others know… give them links to research and to sites like this to read what is really happening…
    one day I just know it will be different… :)

  7. Bill Strahan says:

    Mcdonalds is the cause of this in the same way a gun manufacturer is the cause of armed robbery. Seriously. They’re just providing what the market is consuming.

    I have well educated, fairly wealthy friends with whom I have shared my reasons for adhering strictly to a real-food, grain, legume, dairy free diet comprised of quality meats, veggies, and very occasional fruit and nuts. They don’t have the awareness, and they don’t have the interest in developing the awareness.

    They’re 40+ pounds overweight, they take all the medication the doctor tells them to, like statins, high blood pressure meds, etc. But they invest ZERO time in figuring out why their bodies are falling apart in their early 40s.

    And it if THAT type of person who will go to McDonalds and take their kids then the problem is one of apathy and lack of responsibility, coupled with a medical system that hides true costs through insurance.

    I guarantee you that if everyone who was taking all these drugs to address the symptoms of their crappy diet had to buy each pill with money directly from their pocket they would have more interest in finding out why their body is malfunctioning.

    And until then, they’ll eat their crap from McDonalds or anywhere else they can get it.

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