Addicted to Grub

When McDonald's was taken to court recently by a couple of teenagers on charges of causing their obesity, the defendants argued that McDonald's food is actually healthy and nutritious when eaten in moderation. A young New York filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, set out to test that claim, and for one month, he lived only on food and drink that he bought at McDonald's. Result? A weight gain of 11kg, a rise in cholesterol of 60 points, plus stomach aches, headaches, loss of sex drive, but also an award-winning documentary called "Super Size Me: A Film of Epic Portions."

The film is not yet out in cinemas, but it is only coincidental, McDonald's representatives say, that they are now pulling their Super Size fries and soft drinks off the menu, and introducing a Happy Meal for adults called "Go Active!" that comes with advice from a fitness expert. Does McDonald's now want to single handedly save the world from the deadly effects of globesity?

Hardly - but the word is getting out. Big is no longer beautiful in either servings size or body size, despite what proponents of the Fat Liberation movement say - rather, it is deadly. With over 30% of the population categorized as obese, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 and over, the US leads the global weight gain over the past decades. Mexico and the UK are runners-up, while the Irish are still reasonably slim, with 10% of its population overweight, and the French and Italians slimmer still at around 9%.

Curiously, some of the highest death rates in the US are due to product abuse of some sort. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, obesity is linked to approximately 400,000 deaths annually, coming close to beating out tobacco-related deaths, at 435,000. Alcohol is responsible for 85,000 deaths, car accidents for 43,000 and guns 29,000. Might as well face it, we're addicted to grub, or at least to dangerously dysfunctional eating habits.

Whose fault is it? Fingers have been pointed at hormonal, genetic, evolutionary, racial and psychological issues, as well as at modern lifestyles, in which stress, depression and isolation are linked to weight gain. Newsweek calls it the affliction of affluence, an abundance of everything, with too many choices and not enough restrictions. But at the end of the meal, it is simple mathematics: calories in, calories out.

The numbers are clear. In order to keep the body functioning on a sedentary basis, most people need anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 calories a day, with women needing slightly fewer than men. When routine activities are figured in, the need for calories rises, say, another 500 to 800, adding up to a maximum of 2-2,500 calories for the average Joe to keep his weight balanced. Whatever does not get used or rejected is stored as fat.

Get this: one Big Mac with a large order of fries and a large coke provide a whopping 1,200 calories, just in one meal. Eating an Egg McMuffin and large orange juice for breakfast adds another 500 calories, which leaves only 500 to 700 calories for a third meal, or for snacks - or, say, one large vanilla milkshake. These are not even Super Size level, at which the fries weighed in at almost 500 calories and the Super Size coke, about a kilo of liquid, added up to 330 calories, with its added kicker of approximately 28 teaspoons of sugar.

Yet fast food does not have to be fat food, and this has been smugly proven at the Subway sandwich chain. In 1998, a 22-year-old American student who weighed almost 200 kg (425 pounds), intrigued by its health-geared approach, started eating exclusively at his neighborhood Subway shop. Jared Fogle lived for months on a diet of a Subway footlong vegetarian sandwich for dinner, a 6-inch turkey sandwich plus lots of vegetables for lunch, and only coffee in the morning. In less than a year, he had dropped over 110 kg, and - now happily off that regime - is maintaining a healthy 85 kg.

For many of us it's not necessarily a sudden onslaught of fast food that puts on the pounds; it can be something as innocuous as adding a daily pain au chocolat to your diet. As a fitness instructor who bikes everywhere in Paris, I have to watch how many pains au chocolat I breathe in per week, and am careful not to drink too much wine with dinner at night, as that extra 80 calories per glass adds up quickly. Unless, of course, one is an athlete. For instance, Lance Armstrong and fellow bikers burn 6-7,000 calories a day while racing in the Tour de France.

There are no miracles to beating the battle of the bulge, yet the problem is, of course, more complex than just saying no to huge quantities of fattening food. Somehow consumers have come to equate value with size, and waste has become a bigger sin than that of gluttony. The World Health Organization says there are more over-fed people in the world today than under-fed, in a striking historical flip-flop of the status of plumpness. In what are called the developed countries, the rich are now slim, and the poor are fat. Big people are becoming big business, with the sales of larger-sized clothes, wider seats in planes and theatres, and of course, publications on diets and drugs to suppress the appetite.

What's the answer? We could treat food abuse like any other addiction. Following the slapping of health warnings on cigarette packages, the US Food and Drug Administration is now pushing for food labels in restaurants. One could also take a lesson from the book on alcohol abuse and have police stop drivers to check for blood sugar or lipid levels, with fines levied on those in excess. It would be a crime to get caught with an open package of fries in the car.

Yet, to better match the deterrence to the abusive behaviour, how about having to flash a gym membership card when ordering at the local burger joint. Better yet, treadmills could be installed at the exits of fast-food restaurants. In order to leave, the customer would have to first burn off the calories consumed, taking a fast step in the right direction.