Big Mac Blues
“Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!” Who hasn’t sung this jingle at least a couple times in their lives? I know I have and in my previous life I was quite fond of the ol’ Big Mac. Last week I actually woke up in a hot sweat dreaming specifically of a freshly prepared signature sandwich from the fast food behemoth McDonalds. And, although I do occasionally romance the idea of consuming copious amounts of mass produced, homogeneous fast food sludge, the stark reality is that this cheap, calorically dense and nutrient deficient “food” is extremely detrimental to the physical health of our community. Wait! There’s more! It has recently been discovered that the consumption of fast food is also harmful to our mental and emotional well being as well. While I’m sure that I’m not the only one that has intuitively known this while devouring a giant hamburger, the publication of this research clearly illustrates the depth of the ill effects of fast food on the human body.
According to a recent study by geniuses at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the University of Granada which was published in the Public Health Nutrition Journal, the consumption fast food and commercial baked goods is linked to depression. Statistically, people who consume fast food are 51% more likely to develop depression. This study also demonstrated a “dose-response” to fast food consumption that proves the idea that the more you eat, the more likely you are to suffer from depression. If this wasn’t enough to convince you, “participants who eat the most fast food and commercial baked goods are more likely to be single, less active and have poor dietary habits.”1 So, not only will you be unhealthy and depressed, you will be alone and slovenly too. The total package! How could anyone resist!?
With all this information coming to light, I think it would be worthwhile to talk about food reward theory and how certain foods affect the brain, the people whom might be most affected by the results of this research and why we, as a society, continue to eat food that is so detrimental to our health. So, “have it your way”, “run for the border”, “super size it”, do whatever you need to do while we chat about the fast food and our health.
It seems pretty intuitive to me that different foods affect the body in different ways and the emergence of food reward theory is the perfect place for us to begin scientifically reassuring those intuitions. Reward theory is founded on the idea that, “[our} brains contain a “reward” system, whose job it is to gauge the desireability of food and reinforce and motivate behaviors that favor the acquisition of desirable food.”2 The reward center also helps us regulate food consumption, but when we eat hyper-rewarding, highly palatable foods (our fat and sugar laden Big Mac and Coke), we are essentially short circuiting the reward center in our brains which leads to over eating 3. Similar to addiction to chemical substances, as we eat more highly rewarding foods our bodies develop a tolerance to the stimulation and we therefore need to consume more to obtain the same “high”. Worsening the consequences of a diet rich in highly rewarding foods is the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms associated with the digestion and detoxification process. As our body begins to feel discomfort, eating helps relieve the symptoms which we mistakenly interpret as a sign of hunger and we therefore consume more “toxic” food 4. So basically this means that as we eat more fast food our bodies stop being able to regulate the amount of food we eat which leads to heavier withdrawal symptoms which we then try and mitigate by consuming more fast food. Quite the beautiful little cycle, eh? I’m sure it comes as no surprise that all this in conjunction with our evolutionary adaption to horde and the extreme availability of nutrient deficient food is a leading cause in our society losing the battle against obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In an attempt to keep this post to a reasonable length and to avoid getting ahead of myself, I chose to omit my more technical findings of my research process, but if you are interested simply Google “leptin”, “leptin resistance”, “leptin tolerance”, or any combination therein to find a wealth of information for an easy Sunday evening read. Fun!
Now who should be most concerned about all this goodness? Well, popular belief is that low income families are more likely to consume food fast on a regular basis because it is so calorically dense and also very cheap. While this reasoning is pretty sound and studies have shown that an inverse relationship exists between income and BMI (body mass index) 5, according to a recent study out of UC Davis, “people’s visits to fast-food joints increased along with their incomes, and that poor people were spending fewer dollars on fast food than lower-middle and middle-income Americans”6. While I was initially shocked and honestly questioned the study’s validity, the more I thought about it the more it started to make sense. Young, working professionals that are trying to get ahead are generally more pressed for time and don’t have oodles of free time or energy to plan and prepare nutritious meals for themselves and their families. While this may seem like me rationalizing the study’s findings, I can’t help but reflect on my experience as a young professional where team lunches consist of a several boxes of commercial pizza or late nights where all that could be discussed was where and how much crappy food was going to be eaten upon leaving. It just occurred to me that planning fast-food meals may be my co-workers attempts to reduce or eliminate the by prematurely stoking their brain’s reward center during heavy work weeks. Very interesting.
Finally, what I consider to be the most important question, why do we continue to eat fast food and consciously subject ourselves to all the resulting consequences? One theory behind the predominance of fast food in the standard American diet is attributable to its low cost, speed of service and consistency 7. In fact, several fast food chains build these three influencers into their customer service strategy. Other market professionals believe that convenience is the greatest influencer in an individual’s dietary decision making process. Apparently where a restaurant is located and how easily accessible it is drives our dependence on fast food. While all this is fine and dandy, the study that I found most interesting and probably the most accurate is based not on the perceived convenience of fast food, but rather the inconvenience of finding and preparing healthy food 8. Basically, we eat more fast food because healthy alternatives are not readily available and because we do not like to cook.
So, what can we do to be happy, productive and non-addicted peoples? First, we need to find a way to increase the convenience of eating healthful foods. What if restaurants were to increase the availability of healthy food options by providing more and better alternatives at a reduced price? Better yet, what if in addition to increasing the availability of healthy food restaurants simultaneously decrease the convenience of eating nutrient deficient food by raising prices!? By incentivizing (i dont know if that is even a real word, but eh) healthy food options we can facilitate a healthier dietary decision making process and have a greater impact on the health and wellness of a larger community. Additionally, if we combat the dislike of preparing healthful meals through food preparation demonstrations, healthy cooking education and by emphasizing enjoyment in eating healthy foods we can encourage better nutritional choices and empower people to have more control over their health and wellness. While these thoughts might be considered pie-in-the-sky ideas that might require heavy policy initiatives and government subsidization, providing incentives to make healthier choices would provide a solid foundation to improving our nation’s health and reducing its dependence on nutrient deficient, “toxic” food. What can I do to facilitate change? Well, for me it came down to simply making the decision to make a life change and to hold myself accountable for my own health and wellness. I simply had to choose to eat better and commit to that change regardless of all circumstance. Once I began to feel how well my body responded to eating healthier foods, the benefits quickly outweighed any inconveniences felt in planning, preparing and cooking healthy meals.
Hope that wasn’t too much for ya on this beautiful Easter morning. J