July 9, 2004
by Alex A. Avery
Soso Whaley lost ten pounds while eating three meals a day for 30 days at McDonalds! She says she feels great. Her secret: she limited herself to 1,800 calories a day. Sometimes she ate the Big Mac, but for lots of meals she ate the Chicken Caesar Salad.
Ms. Whaley is a moviemaker. She was inspired to film herself getting slimmer on fast food after learning about Morgan Spurlock's new documentary film, Super Size Me, the hit of the anti-corporate Sundance Film Festival.
Spurlock did what he says the average McDonalds customer does: ordered the full Value Meals, "supersized" them if the cashier suggested it, and finished everything on his tray. Three times a day for a month. He often swallowed more than 5,000 calories a day. He also cut back his exercise, apparently for more dramatic visual effect. He even limited his steps per day.
To no one's surprise, Spurlock emerged 25 pounds heavier, blotchy-faced, and depressed.
Never mind that hardly anyone eats only fast food every meal for a month-let alone also deliberately avoiding exercise. Anybody who does is obviously headed for obesity. It's not what you eat, it's the number of calories eaten and not burned up by your physical activity.
Ms. Whaley, interviewed for the May issue of American Spectator, says she feels fine. She calls Spurlock's food choices "typical MTV gross-out."
"I think the majority of the American public will be a bit offended by Mr. Spurlock's contention that we have no choice, and [have to] eat like some sort of automatons," she concludes. "I think Mr. Spurlock's real agenda was to create a documentary bashing both the fast food industry and the American public."
My wife and I think back to our childhood pre-fast-food road trips. The family ate in sit-down restaurants and drugstores. The typical meal: a hamburger with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise; French fries; and a thick milk shake. The real difference between then and now? McDonalds' is cheaper, faster, and it's a diet drink on the side.
My wife lived in Africa for many years. She recalls the street vendors there, selling fried grasshoppers, fried mice, fried anything. Throughout history, there have been fried street foods. They're tasty, quick and even nutritious. Moreover, they advertise themselves because they smell so good.
Obesity has become an expanding problem across the affluent world-but our appetites may not be at fault. Dr. Lisa Sutherland of the University of North Carolina used Centers for Disease Control data to analyze today's teenagers. She finds they eat only one percent more calories than teenagers of 20 years ago-but the percentage of kids who get 30 minutes a day of physical exercise has dropped from 42 percent to 29 percent. It's no surprise that youth obesity has risen 10 percent as a result.
Few of us dig ditches, hoist haybales by hand, or chop kindling for the kitchen stove anymore. If Mr. Spurlock had been training seriously for the Boston Marathon, he might have burned 5,000 calories a day. Instead, he's mortgaged his health to set a bad example. Thanks, Morgan.
And thanks to Soso Whaley (an adjunct scholar at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute) for demonstrating an even better point about our ability to make our own choices.
Now, I'm headed off for a bike ride.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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