Chef Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says....

Don't Eat Fast Food

a fast food burger

A few weeks ago I laid responsibility for obesity in America at the feet of the fast food companies. A bit over the top, maybe, but not too far fetched. My comments did elicit some responses as you might expect.

One writer very graciously noted, "They certainly are partly responsible; particularly in lower-income communities. But the problem of obesity is far greater than the fast-food companies… The problem is multi-faceted and includes the problem created by many in the restaurant industry of serving portions that are far greater than any one of us should eat."

While there is no definitive research that says "fast food makes you fat," there's enough evidence that says it is a major contributor. Certainly the issue of portion size is a big contributor to obesity (pun intended). In one of my favorite studies, a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin estimated just how much supersizing costs you in the long run.

Their study took into account the difference in price between a regular and a supersized meal. At the same time they estimated the weight gain over time from the added calories in the larger portions. Their bottom line? The larger meal cost an additional 17% at the cash register and provided an additional 73% more calories than a regular meal. The hidden costs in the health problems from weight gain added somewhere between 123% and 191% to the overall cost of the meal.

Such research and conclusions are supported by USDA estimates that puts added health care costs from obesity at $71 billion per year. If you haven't seen the film "Supersize Me," you should. In it, Morgan Spurlock eats only McDonalds for a month and supersizes the meals whenever offered the option at the cash register. The results are devastating to his health and are documented in the film.

So can it be done? Can you eat fast food and do OK? Only if you're really, really careful. There are a number of people now who have eaten only at McDonalds but made more intelligent choices than in Mr. Spurlock's experiment and actually lost weight. After all, he did supersize most meals and often ate as many as 5,000 calories per day.

I went into McDonalds today to see what was available. This is a dismal place and looked and smelled dirty. The décor is tired and the odor greasy. The general fare was on offer and hamburgers were much cheaper than the healthier options. Salads were $5.00 and there's not much more that could be considered healthy.

The only inexpensive healthy option is a Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap with Grilled Chicken. It's a reasonable choice at only 260 calories and 8 grams of fat. Why then do they call it a "snack?" Their regular hamburger is 250 calories and 9 grams of fat, but isn't labeled as a snack. This is the sort of attitude that doesn't lead to healthy eating - it leads to overeating.

In short, is the fast food industry responsible for obesity? In my opinion, yes. Just because other industries and companies also play a role doesn't excuse that guilt. If Ronald and Wendy rob your house together, Ron bears full responsibility along with Wendy.

But certainly more important is that the food is just plain awful. Life's just too important to eat terrible food, especially food that's going to make you fat and unhealthy.

Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet
First posted: October 8, 2007