Super Size Me, Fat Head and Bliss Point: The confusing world of fast food

Fathead vs. Super Size Me

The last couple of weeks have been really difficult to stick with the vegan regimen and to stay focused on exercise, etc.  I am not sure what is going on mentally with me, but it seems that perhaps the stress of finding employment, or perhaps the associated impact of discouragement and other factors have been influential.  It is distressing to me that the external impacts of life have such an impact on my mental and emotional ability to stay focused on a weight loss effort.

SUPER SIZE ME

This being said, I want to kind of divert the focus to some “conflicts” that are out there.  A couple of days ago, Julianne and I watched a documentary called “Fat Head“.  This is  a 2009 American documentary film directed by and starring Tom Naughton. The film seeks to refute both the documentary called “Super Size Me,” and the lipid hypothesis, a bedrock of nutritional science for decades in the United States and much of the Western world.  Super Size Me is a 2004 Academy Award nominated American film directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, an American independent filmmaker, who is also a vegetarian. Spurlock’s film follows a 30-day period from February 1 to March 2, 2003 during which he ate only McDonald’s food.  Essentially, Naughton opines that Super Size Me is full of bologna.  I want to discuss my feelings about both, as well as some commentary on a recent news article in the New York Times about how food manufacturers are striving to make their food addictive through the use of “bliss point” research.

Super Size Me

I first watched Super Size Me with my wife back in December (or was it November?).  This was when she and I were considering whether to go totally vegan.  Mind you, Julianne was already there.  It was me that needed some convincing.  And Spurlock made what seemed to be a valid argument.  At the time I had the impression that Spurlock was actually a vegan, but, some research today indicates to me that it was his ex-wife, Alexandra Jamieson is a vegan chef, and so, he probably ate a lot of vegan meals at home. (I JUST NOW discovered that on February 27, 2013 Alexandra “came out of the closet” and admitted that she is not vegan anymoresee here.  I’ll write more about that below as it does relate to this post.)

Morgan Spurlock and Big Mac

In Super Size Me,  the film follows Spurlock on a 30-day period from February 1 to March 2, 2003 during which he ate only McDonald’s food, which is likely something most people would never do. The film documents the drastic effect this diet had on Spurlock’s physical and psychological well-being, and explores the fast food industry’s corporate influence, including how it encourages poor nutrition for its own profit.  Spurlock ate at McDonald’s restaurants three times per day, eating every item on the chain’s menu at least once. In the film Spurlock claims to have consumed an average of 5,000 calories per day (the equivalent of 9.26 Big Macs) during the experiment.  As a result, the then-32-year-old Spurlock says he gained 24½ lbs., a 13% body mass increase, had an increased cholesterol level of 230, and experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction, and fat accumulation in his liver. Apparently, It took Spurlock fourteen months to lose the weight gained from his experiment using a vegan diet supervised by his then future wife (and now ex-wife), Alexandra Jamieson, a chef who specialized in gourmet vegan dishes.

Spurlock had specific rules governing his eating habits for this film:

  • He must fully eat three McDonald’s meals per day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • He must consume every item on the McDonald’s menu at least once over the course of the 30 days (he managed this in nine days).
  • He must only ingest items that are offered on the McDonald’s menu, including bottled water. All outside consumption of food is prohibited.
  • He must Super Size the meal when offered, but only when offered (i.e., he is not able to Super Size items himself).
  • He will attempt to walk about as much as a typical U.S citizen, based on a suggested figure of 5,000 standardized distance steps per day,but he did not closely adhere to this, as he walked more while in New York than in Houston.

Fat Head

FAT HEAD RETORT

According to Wikipedia, Tom Naughton is an American documentary filmmaker, humorist, former health writer, libertarian, and stand up comedian best known for his documentary film Fat Head.  He is also known for his advocating of a Paleolithic diet (which is a diet consisting mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oil) and speaking out against the Lipid hypothesis (proposes a connection between plasma cholesterol level and the development of coronary heart disease — which I will mention below).  He also rejects the link between sodium consumption and higher blood pressure.    Naughton was a vegetarian for many years during which time he claims to have gained weight, lost weight, and had problems with flatulence, constipation and depression, all of which, he argues, were produced by his diet.  Naughton now follows a low-carbohydrate diet, one that he followed while eating fast food in Fat Head.  Naughton is also a recovering alcoholic.  Ultimately, Naughton claims that Super Size Me is a “load of bologna.”  Thus the cover photo for the movie.

Spurlock Math does not add up

Fat Head has its own website and on the site there is a detailed “About the Movie” page which includes the reasoning behind Naughton’s film and also includes some clips from the movie.  On the site it notes that the film “replies to the blame-McDonald’s crowd by losing weight on a fat-laden fast-food diet while demonstrating that nearly everything we’ve been told about obesity and healthy eating is wrong. Along with some delicious parody of Super Size Me, Naughton serves up plenty of no-bologna facts that will stun most viewers, such as: The obesity “epidemic” has been wildly exaggerated by the CDC. People the government classifies as “overweight” have longer lifespans than people classified as “normal weight.” Having low cholesterol is unhealthy. Lowfat diets can lead to depression and type II diabetes. Saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease — but sugars, starches and processed vegetable oils do.”  Naughton goes on to show in the movie that there is no way that Spurlock’s numbers add up to 5000.

 

CSPI Guy

Naughton furthers his efforts by humorously commenting on the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).  On their website they state their mission is that they are “a consumer advocacy organization whose twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.”   The CSPI has been dubbed the “Food Police” by many of  its critics. It has launched many high-profile campaigns over the years against everything from movie theater popcorn to Chinese food and sugary breakfast cereals. One of the group’s more recent campaigns has led to large restaurant chains being forced to disclose calorie counts on their menus.  In 2010 the CSPI filed a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s on behalf of a woman who claimed that McDonald’s was including toys in their Happy Meals as “bait to induce her kids to clamor to go to McDonald’s and to develop a preference for nutritionally poor Happy Meals.”  Naughton reacted by including a retort in his video.

This video was a comical retort.  However, Court documents filed in April 2012 show Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs are unable to file an amended complaint.

The most compelling argument against the message of Super Size Me in his documentary was when he cried foul on the nutritionist who told Morgan Spurlock he was consuming over 5,000 calories a day on his McDiet.  Like many others before him, Naughton asked Spurlock to provide his meal records (which Spurlock claimed to have kept, yet has not released to anyone who has asked). Since he was unable to have access to any of Spurlock’s menus, it was impossible to determine exactly how many calories he consumed in the 30 days he ate at McDonald’s. But by using deductive reasoning assuming what Spurlock ate, Naughton, a numbers man, did the math and it just didn’t add up especially in light of the fact that he was only asked to Super Size a total of nine times.

Golden Arches

Naughton (who is also a computer programmer and deals with data and numbers all the time) is of the opinion that Spurlock fudged on his rules to make sure his weight gain would be dramatic and impressive. He believes that the claim that Spurlock had more than 5,000 calories per day was perhaps a little calculation problem for.   So, when Spurlock’s nutritionist told him he was consuming more than 5,000 calories per day, alarm bells went off in Naughton’s math-loving brain. He had eaten at McDonald’s while on a diet, so he already had a rough idea of the calories in their meals, and knew immediately something didn’t add up.  He went on to show in his film, with totally documented data, that he could actually lose weight on a total fast food diet, but also added the exercise piece into the equation, which Spurlock didn’t do.

Addicted to food

BLISS POINT AND FOOD ADDICTION

All of this leads to another recent article that was enlightening.  I saw this article last week via Facebook and found it to be quite interesting. Entitled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, the super lengthy article discusses the science of making food addictive and how many food manufacturers spend massive amounts of money to determine the “Bliss Point” for consumers. It was fascinating as well to learn how the CEOs of these food companies were not concerned about the supposed “obesity epidemic” (which by the way, Naughton claims to be a farce pushed forward by government to appease food lobbyists — and, I should note here, that Naughton is a Libertarian).  The “Bliss Point” was originally brought to light in 2004 by experimental psychologist Howard Moskowitz. The bliss point is the precise junction of taste where people derive the greatest pleasure from a combination of fat, sugar and salt. Food scientists are constantly working on perfecting their products so they reach this point.  The NYT article notes a study to increase Dr Pepper market share.  Many different concoctions of Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper were formulated and tested in market studies in order to ascertain the consumer bliss point.  Data was meticulously kept and, eventually, the right formulation was found, which ended up using less Dr Pepper syrup than normal yet increased sales.  The company saved millions of dollars on the reduced syrup use.

Rich Food, Poor Food

Earlier this week, Jayson Calton, the author of the book Rich Food, Poor Food, posted an editorial in the American Nutrition Association blog in reference to the New York Times article. Entitled From “the Bliss Point” to “the Breaking Point” – America’s War on the Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, Calton argues that one of the big no-no’s is sugar (which he states is a “Poor Food” in his book), which he says “according to researchers out of the University of Bordeaux, refined sugar, the same ingredient added to many processed foods, is far more addictive than cocaine.” He also attacks High Fructose Corn Syrup (HCFS) (which, by the way, the general population is now aware of as an obesity-inducing product) in that it “does not trigger the secretion of leptin, a hormone that tells your brain when you are full. Because of this, eating foods that contain HFCS can lead to increased caloric consumption and obesity. HFCS consumption may also lead to an increased risk of heart disease because it has been shown to cause elevated triglyceride levels.”

High Fructose Corn Syrup and Obesity

Ironically, Naughton notes in his documentary how the corn growers lobby has helped in the influx of the use of HFCS. Naughton, by the way, has also reviewed the Calton’s Rich Food, Poor Food and notes that their “focus is on the importance of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals in food” and that their “diet at home is close to perfect.”  He further notes “that this book isn’t about adopting a perfect diet.  It’s about adopting a better diet, even if you do all your shopping in grocery stores.  Most of the book, in fact, is a shopping guide – what they call their Ultimate GPS:  grocery purchasing system.”

No MSG

Finally, Calton notes the Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a third culprit in pushing obesity.  MSG is a common flavor enhancer.  I remember it well from my days in Japan.  You could actually buy Aji-no-Moto, which is basically MSG in a package.  You could add it to your food like sugar!!  Even today, it is commonly found in Chinese food, numerous soups and other foods. The FDA requires that products with MSG note it on the label.

Aji-No-Moto

According to Calton, “MSG has long been used by food scientists to trick us into thinking a food tastes better than it really does. In fact, this flavor enhancer, found in nearly all processed foods in one form or another, has been shown to increase food consumption in animals by 40% and evidence suggests that it may produce similar responses in humans.  MSG works so well that it is used to rapidly increase the weight of lab rats when overweight or obese rats are needed for various experiments. The food scientists hired by these unscrupulous monsters of manufacturing are well aware that like HFCS, MSG also works to induce obesity because it seems to make us leptin resistant. Recall that leptin is the hormone that makes us feel satiated. Why would you ever put down the bag of MSG-laden chips if your brain never actually receives the message to stop eating them?”

Calton calls for a Rich Food revolution – “It is time for a RICH FOOD REVOLUTION, a grassroots movement that puts the power of choice back in our hands, the hands of the consumers. We feel we can literally change the landscape of the current grocery stores, crowding “the bliss point” filled packages right off the shelves and replacing them with safe, healthy options for our families to enjoy. ”

The End of Overeating – by David Kessler

Along the same lines, David A. Kessler, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, writes in his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite that “over-eating might be due to something altogether more insidious – the combination of fats, sugars and salt used by food manufactures to trigger a ‘bliss’ point in the human brain.”  He says “It’s time to stop blaming individuals for being overweight or obese,” and that “The real problem is we’ve created a world where food is always available and that it is designed to make you want more of it. For millions of us, modern food is impossible to resist.” (See a great article about Kessler and the Bliss Point written in 2009).

Addictive Food

Interestingly enough, I could not find a single article that related McDonald’s to Bliss Point.  But I do know that they have hit my Bliss Point with their Sausage Egg McMuffin!!  Ultimately, all of this diet stuff can be confusing and overwhelming.  I watched as my sweet wife, in the middle of Fat Head, dropped her face into her hands in frustration and said “I don’t know what to believe any more.”  I too feel that pain.  I know that a vegan diet has many benefits.  But, I also know that I daily crave meat and cheese and eggs.  Its not sugar I crave.  Its not breads and cakes.  Its meat and cheese and eggs.

Diet Confusion

So, this morning I posted the “I’m Not Vegan Anymore” link on my Facebook page.  My daughter noted that maybe being a “Flexitarian” is the way to go.  Well, what in the world is a flexitarian? m According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician, “Flexitarianism” is the hot new term for healthy dieting that minimizes meat without excluding it altogether. This is an inclusive eating plan, meaning it does not take away foods but rather adds new foods to those you already eat.”

Are you a Flexitarian?

Blatner has published another “Diet Book” called The Flexitarian Diet. The Flexitarian Diet gradually guides you to eat more veggies while still enjoying your favorite meats. According to her, “Flexitarians weigh 15% less, have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and live 3.6 years longer than their carnivorous counterparts.”

The Flexitarian Diet

Ultimately, I believe that Naughton is flexitarian.  He wrote a blog entry in 2010 stating why he was no longer vegetarian. (Also see this one).  It was interesting to me to see that in both of these entries, he also brings up Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists.  He notes a couple of times that Mormons (who do eat meat) have a higher life expectancy than the Seventh-Day Adventists (who are predominantly vegetarian).

Alex Jamieson – Vegan no more

But, back to Alex Jamieson’s confession from last week.  She seems to be admitting as well, without the word “flexitarian,” that this is what she really is.  Naughton indicates we need some animal fat in our brains and that we crave it. Jamieson notes it as well in her confession statement.   I want to close with a quote from her letter – on Compassion:

Compassion – by Alex Jamieson

This was a word I had given to the vegan community completely. But I began to realize that we need to offer compassion for all creatures, all animals, all humans, ourselves, in order to be truly compassionate.

And I realized that by keeping my truth a secret, I was adding to the hostile food-culture that so many feel trapped by.

The food culture that makes being overweight a crime and a weakness.

The food culture that makes eating what your body needs a moral dilemma.

This culture that has produced the most unhealthy, food-and-weight obsessed and ashamed generations the world has ever seen.

And it’s killing us in so many ways.

So I’m writing you this letter and telling you all in the hope that you and I can bring the dialogue to a new place.

A place where we can begin to have more compassion for ourselves and each other.

A place where we take the morality, perfectionism and rigidity out of our food.

A place where we can live truly healthy lives without the fear of judgment that who we are or what we need, is wrong.

A place where we can be ourselves.


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