[Foodplanning] News: Assessing the Health Impacts of "Fast Foods"
vasishth at csun.edu
Sat Jan 27 02:59:39 PST 2007
Only another 5,500 calories to go ...
A Swedish university has replicated Morgan
Spurlock's Super Size Me junk food binge under
lab conditions. The early results are surprising,
says Marten Blomkvist
Thursday September 7, 2006
French fries / junk food / fast food / McDonalds / chips
Photograph: Joe Raedle / Getty Images
There are two polarised reactions to Morgan
Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in
which the American film-maker ate nothing but
McDonald's food for a month. Lots of people are
disgusted to see what happens to the
33-year-old's body as he accepts Super Size shake
after Super Size shake and limits himself to
5,000 steps a day and are shocked as his liver
becomes toxic, his cholesterol skyrockets and his
libido sags. Everyone else thinks: hey, how bad
can it be? I wouldn't mind doing that.
Well, at one Swedish university, a group of
students are getting the chance. At the
University of Linköping, the Spurlock experience
is being replicated under clinical conditions. In
February, seven healthy medical students in their
early 20s spent weeks stuffing themselves with
hamburgers, pizzas, milk shakes and 200g bacon
breakfasts - all on the university's tab. A
second group of subjects are just now hitting the
junk food. Physical exercise is to be avoided.
Bikes are out. To discourage walking even the
shortest distance, free bus passes have been
The study is the brainchild of Fredrik Nyström,
doctor and associate professor at the
university's department of internal medicine.
Finding himself with a little extra money in his
research budget last year, he decided to do
something "fun, something lasting". And ever
since watching Super Size Me he had been thinking
of how, in all the studies of obesity and
metabolism, hardly anyone has studied what
happens when you force healthy people to put on
weight. The few studies there have been took
place in the 60s and 70s.
The reason, speculates Nyström, is because it is
difficult to ask people to get fat in the name of
science. "It's far easier to study those who are
fat to begin with," he says. "They're
appreciative and keen, happy that someone will
help them slim. And in the US, I assume this kind
of study would be out of the question. Everyone
would get sued if the subjects afterwards didn't
manage to get rid of their extra kilos." But in
laidback Sweden, there were no problems clearing
the experiment with the national ethical board.
The one proviso Nyström added was that he would
pull anyone out of the experiment if they
increased their bodyweight by more than 15% -
even if he or she was prepared to go on.
It wasn't difficult for Nyström to find willing
guinea pigs. Late last year, after delivering a
lecture on the ills of overeating, he casually
asked if any of the students would be prepared to
gorge themselves for the sake of science. He was
deluged with applications, but mostly from men
(he thinks that women are too wary of gaining
weight). They all had to be in good health, but
as he says: "Young med students usually are."
Nyström then simply chose the ones who seemed
"the most highly motivated". At the end of the
month, each student was they were given their
results to keep.
Before the study began, the subjects thought they
were in for an easy time. In fact, they could
hardly believe their luck: "You mean to tell me
that if I were to go out tonight, and order beer
and peanuts, you'd pay?" said one incredulous
student. But eating 6,000 calories a day -
roughly double what most of the volunteers
ingested normally - is not as easy as it sounds.
You can't do it simply by letting yourself go and
having an extra scoop of ice cream. It takes
effort. One Big Mac with large fries and a large
Coke still nets you just 1,164 calories,
according to McDonald's Swedish website.
Just as in Super Size Me, the idea was that all
calories would come from fast food. But breakfast
at home was allowed, provided it was
bacon-and-eggs based. And the fast food didn't
have to come exclusively from McDonald's:
hamburgers could be exchanged for pizzas, as long
as most of the calories still came from saturated
fats, those having the most effect on levels of
cholesterol. Still, it wasn't unusual for
students to be about to go to bed only to
discover that they were some 600 calories short
of their daily target, and forced to face a large
calorific milk shake rather than a mug of hot
It turns out that hunger might be an underrated
feeling. Towards the end of the study, most of
the students stated that they were looking
forward to being ravenous again. Going for a
month feeling continually sated felt odd. And
though few of them were fitness freaks, most
hated not being allowed to walk or cycle around.
Nyström was surprised to find "there was more
whining about that than about the eating".
The students managed to gain between 5-15% extra
weight over the month. They felt "tired and
bloated", especially during the first week, but
there seemed to be no signs of the mood swings
towards the end that the rather despondent
Final results from the questionnaires will be
released at the end of the study. But judging
from the provisional results, no one suffered
anything like as much as Spurlock. One of the
most shocking scenes in the film is when his
three doctors urge him to abandon his experiment
after getting the results of blood tests which
show that his liver is so badly damaged it looks
as though it is the result of heavy drinking -
"You're pickling your liver!". While Nyström and
his team also noted "significant" changes in the
liver, relating to the liver enzyme levels in the
blood, and the content of fat in the liver, the
changes were "never even close to dangerous".
Nyström is puzzled about why Spurlock had such an
extreme reaction, musing that he could perhaps
have had an undiagnosed problem with his liver
or, he says, "Maybe his hardcore vegetarian
girlfriend held him to a low-energy diet, making
him incapable of coping with this kind of food."
Interestingly, in the Swedish experiment, while
the liver readings got steadily worse until the
third week, they then took a turn for the better.
The liver, it would seem, adapts. Cholesterol,
meanwhile, was hardly affected.
And this is the most fascinating thing: if
Nyström's small group are representative, then it
would seem that our bodies are more adaptable
than we give them credit for. In other words,
metabolism may play a much more important role in
the problem of obesity than many people think.
Indeed, Nyström claims that for some people,
eating 10% more will lead to their metabolism
increasing at the same level. The extra energy
will be burned off as body heat during sleep. "If
that was not the case we would all have to keep
track of every last calorie," he says. "And you
have to realise that some overeaters consume such
grotesque amounts that they would be even heavier
- much heavier! - were it not for this safety
That's why these kind of studies have to be
carried out, he says: "If you only look at the
already overweight, you'll only do research on
those with least resistance to calories, so to
The first part of the study finished in June; the
next batch of subjects are now stuffing
themselves with Big Macs. Nyström expects to
publish final results after Christmas: not a bad
time of year to publish a report blaming
individual metabolism for weight gain.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006
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