Just how bad is McDonald's food?
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.
John Robbins is the author the just released tenth anniversary edition of "The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life And Our World." He is also the author of many other bestsellers, including the classic "Diet For A New America," and "The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less." John is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey's Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America's Lifetime Achievement Award. For more info about his work, or to sign up for his email list, visit johnrobbins.info.