Dispelling fast-food alarmism

You’ve been brainwashed, probably about a lot of things, but certainly about fast food. From a small age you’ve been told by characters as trustworthy as Timon and Pumba that a diet high in saturated fat is a recipe for disaster and that loading up on grains is the key to health. Well our childhood farm lobby-friendly bug-eating dieticians lied to us. It’s crunching lots of whole-wheat carbs, instead of burgers at the 8, that really adds a little to your middle. All that stuff about butter and lard being evil is likely a lie. I sort of figured this already, but I needed a documentary to spell it out. “Fathead,” is a follow-up documentary by Tom Naughton on Morgan Spurlock’s critically acclaimed school-approved brainwashing tool — the movie “Supersize Me.”

In “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock eats about 5,000 or so calories a day of McDonald’s fast food for a month, doesn’t exercise and quite shockingly gains more than a few pounds. He then shakes his fist at McDonald’s, blaming it for all sorts of health problems — without ever releasing his food log. I’ve watched this movie at least four times and all for school. I was always pretty discouraged by the fact that no one seemed to think that Spurlock’s study was poorly constructed. Why didn’t he simply continue his normal exercise routine and calorie intake and then measure his health?

Evidently I wasn’t the only one who thought so because former nutrition writer, comedian and computer programmer Tom Naughton decided to make his own documentary — “Fat Head” — where he tried his own fast-food diet. Naughton normally consumed about 2,500 calories a day and walked five miles, three days a week for exercise. He decided to eat mainly McDonald’s burgers, avoid pop except for diet and skip french fries. He also lowered his calorie intake to 2,000 per day and walked five miles, six nights a week. After 28 days, his weight dropped from 206 pounds to 194 pounds, body fat as a percentage of his weight went down and all of his cholesterol levels had gotten healthier with one exception — his bad cholesterol had gone up slightly due to consuming trans fats.

Documentaries are fun, but I thought it would be nice to call up Naughton directly. Being a former college journalist himself, he kindly agreed to be interviewed. One of the first things I asked him was if Spurlock was really eating 5,000 calories a day. “I believe he was. Just mathematically, to gain the impressive weight he did over a month, he had to eat 5,000 calories a day. His nutritionist said in the film he was consuming more than 5,000 calories a day,” Naughton said. “Between weeks three and four he did not gain weight. The body can adjust. My guess is that during that last week and a half, he just ate unbelievable amounts of food.”

Is vegetable oil that safe? Not if it’s trans fats

Naturally, I brought up the subject of trans fats. In no uncertain terms he suggested that I try to avoid them. “They look like saturated fats, and they largely taste like them. Your body doesn’t know what the hell to do with hydrogenated vegetable oil. A lot of your hormones are built of saturated fat, your cell walls are built of saturated fat. Now your body is trying to build them out of trans fats, which are unnatural and more unstable. We also know that trans fats lower your HDL.” HDL is high-density lipoprotein. Among other things, according to the Mayo Clinic, HDL goes through your body removing excess cholesterol. Basically, trans fats taste like saturated fats but without any of their benefits.

McDonald’s did not use trans fats in the past. But due in part to the activism of more than a few very angry vegetarians, such as the “Center for Science in the Public Interest,” the company switched from natural saturated fats in the form of beef tallow to very unnatural vegetable oil. Unfortunately, McDonald’s still was using small bits of beef flavoring and was sued by vegetarians for false advertising. I can almost understand that, but why in the world would a practicing vegetarian ever go to a McDonald’s? Wouldn’t they realize any money they gave to the company would result in more cows being turned into burgers? I think so, but McDonald’s has a lot of money, and McLawsuits can be very profitable. After all, I never hear about radical vegetarians suing mom-and-pop diners.

The truth about high fat

All that said, the main contention against fast food is that a high-fat diet in general is bad for you. Naughton firmly disagrees. After his high-fat, fast-food diet in which he lost weight, he tried a second one that was extremely high in natural saturated fat — as high as 50 percent of his calorie intake but very low in carbohydrates. It was a prototype of what became his current diet, which he classifies as a modified Paleolithic diet.

“In a nutshell, the Paleo diet is saying that, as closely as we can, we’re going to imitate the diet of our pre-agricultural ancestors,” Naughton said, so lots of high-fat meat, fish and nuts, and some roots, fruits and vegetables. The one modification is full-fat dairy. “I still put butter on my food,” Naughton said.

Naughton approaches diet from an evolutionary perspective. He said, “Human beings running around in the wild ages ago ate fruit. But they only ate fruit in season. Also, today’s fruits have been genetically engineered to be extra sweet.”

“Meat and saturated fat are the only reason we have big brains. The exception is if you are eating fats that are hydrogenated.”

Naughton has a caveat to his high saturated-fat diet — don’t eat it with sugar.

“For reasons that no one has been able to explain to me, if you are eating lots of saturated fat at the same time as you are eating lots of sugar — that’s a bad combination. I’ve asked some biochemists, and all they say is that they know [that this combination can ruin the benefits of saturated fat], but they can’t explain it.”

Tooth decay is not sugar’s lone risk

Naughton says that consuming sugar is the real culprit in a bad diet. Furthermore, he believes that weight gain has less to do with overeating than might be thought.

Naughton said, “People are eating the wrong things. This causes their body to store a disproportionate amount of calories in their fat cells. It’s not as much about character and willpower as people like to think.”

I could see where this was heading — smack dab into Atkins diet territory. I’d heard from quite a few people about the dangers of ketosis, so I asked Naughton about it. Ketosis happens when your body releases ketones to convert fat to energy. That sounds nice, and for the most part it is, but I’d heard that ketosis over long periods of time could lead to kidney failure.

He said, “What has happened is that an awful lot of people have confused ketosis with ketoacidosis. The amount of ketones being released during ketoacidosis is something like 20 times higher than natural ketosis.”

Ketoacidosis is a sign of diabetes. Since ketones are released when your body either has little sugar or doesn’t know what to do with it, a very high ketone level could signal that your body can no longer break down sugar.

Personally, I’m not ready yet to dive into the Paleolithic diet, but I do think that Naughton is right about saturated fats being good for you. I also think that he’s right about sugar being bad, but I’m not going to abandon it completely.

At the end of the day, your diet is your own responsibility. There’s an underlying theme in “Super Size Me” that somehow anyone who eats fast food is just too stupid to know that if they engorge themselves, negative health effects occur. I disagree. I’ve never believed that pop was a good thing for me, and I still drink it. I’ve never believed that doughnuts were good for me, and yet, when I got off the phone with Naughton, I probably ate about nine doughnut holes — which is not something I do on a regular basis, mind you. Yes, I could eat healthier, but overall I am a pretty healthy person, and if it turns out I’m really not as healthy as I think I am, it’s not like I went into it with my eyes closed.

I strongly encourage you to watch “Fat Head.” Maybe you won’t get into the Paleolithic diet, but I think you will be rescued from the fast-food alarmism — which eerily resembles prohibition crusades — of uninformed filmmakers like Spurlock. Cut down on sugar, avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils as much as possible and don’t neglect saturated fats. I don’t think any of this is new or surprising knowledge, but for some reason, it’s popular to think like it is — as if McDonald’s was being discreet about the calorie content of its food. The only one being discreet about McDonald’s calorie content is Morgan Spurlock.

If you want to avoid the freshman 15, don’t drink for one, but also don’t get caught up in consuming whole-wheat toast instead of bacon and eggs because the fatter latter is better for you. More importantly, don’t be afraid of burgers, though you may want to skip the fries and pop.

Reach opinion writer Thomas Cloud at opinion@dailyuw.com.

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