TCS Daily

A Supersized Distortion

By Ruth Kava - February 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Morgan Spurlock wanted to be in a movie. And he was in a movie -- one he made himself -- which he then presented to the world at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The subject of the movie was the fattening of Morgan himself -- he managed to gain 25 pounds in a month by overeating at McDonald's restaurants. The name of his documentary, "Supersize Me," should serve as a warning to the rest of us that eating too much will make us fat (which we might have heard before).

Actually, Mr. Spurlock is simply following an old Hollywood tradition -- gaining weight to suit a movie role. Robert DeNiro did it for "Raging Bull," as did Rene Zellweger for "Bridget Jones' Diary," and most recently, Charlize Theron for "Monster." As far as I know, none of these thespians restricted their weight-gaining efforts to any particular type of food or eating venue.

But that won't stop Mr. Spurlock (and others) from blaming McDonald's for his own foray into gluttony. This despite the fact that Americans are overindulging in virtually all venues, not just fast food outlets like McDonald's. Recent reports of food consumption and calorie intake indicate that between national surveys performed in the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, intake increased significantly almost across the board. Americans over 2 years of age consumed nearly 200 more calories per day in the '90s than in the '70s. And whether one looks at French fries, desserts, salty snacks, meals or Mexican food, the increases were statistically significant.[1]

Since the '90s, the picture hasn't improved. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the results of another survey summary -- this one examining energy intake between 1971 and 2000 by adults between the ages of 20 and 74. Again, total reported daily calorie intake increased for both men and women. For men, the increase was on the order of about 170 calories and for women over 300 calories.

Americans apparently tried to pay attention to the advice to limit fat intake during that period, as the percent of calories consumed from fat decreased. Unfortunately, while the percentage of calories from fat decreased, this was because the total calories consumed increased, as did the actual amount of fat! [2] Although it is very much au courant these days to blame specific nutrients (carbohydrates are the villains du jour) for increasing Americans' girth, this is highly misleading. In fact, there are some good data suggesting that a diet lower in fat -- and thus necessarily higher in carbs -- can work perfectly well for weight loss.

Participants in the National Weight Control Registry are folks who have managed to lose at least 30 pounds, and to keep the weight off for at least one year. In fact, on average they have lost over 60 pounds and maintained the weight loss for over 3 years. These successful weight losers report that the composition of their low calorie diets is typically only about 24% fat, which doesn't support the idea that a successful weight loss diet must be low in carbohydrate.[3]

In another CDC article, there was a (very) small bit of good news. This article documents trends in the prevalence of lack of leisure-time physical activity between 1988 and 2002. The summary covered data from 35 states and the District of Columbia and found that in 1989, about 32% of adults surveyed reported no leisure-time physical activity, while by 2002 that proportion had decreased to 25%. [4] This is good news, because it suggests that maybe Americans are beginning to pay attention to advice from a variety of health experts who urge us all to be physically active. Of course, the fact that leisure time inactivity has decreased doesn't have to mean that Americans are active enough to stop or even slow the increase in weight gain that has been so apparent over the past couple of decades. But it's a start. The successful losers in the National Weight Control Registry also report exercising frequently and regularly, underscoring the

importance of physical activity to the maintenance of a healthy body weight.

The finger pointing indulged in by Mr. Spurlock and others is misleading because it suggests that "fast foods" are the main culprits for the nation's increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity. But the problem is bigger than just one type of food. In fact, any calorically-dense foods, eaten to excess, can add inches to one's girth, especially if unaccompanied by calorie-burning exercise; that should be the real message -- not that cheeseburgers and fries, (or carbohydrate or fat ) automatically make one fat!

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D. is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health and is a frequent TCS contributor. For more on this topic see here. She last wrote for TCS about lifestyle choices.

[1] Nielsen, SJ., Siega-Riz, AM, and Popkin, BM. Trends in energy intake in U.S. between 1077 and 1996: Similar shifts seen across age groups. Obesity Research 2002; 10(5):370-378.

2 CDC. Trends in Intake of energy and macronutrients---United States, 1971-2000. /mmwrhtml/mm5304a3.htm. Accessed 2/06/04.

3 Accessed 2/09/04

4 CDC. Prevalence of no leisure-time physical activity-35 states and the District of Columbia, 1988-2002. Accessed 2/06/04.


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