Obesity Crankery Part II

Orac alerted me, based on my recent obesity writings, of a new crank obesity attack on science.

This latest is in the form of a rebuttal to Morgan Spurlock’s excellent film Supersize me. Comedian Tom Naughton, who has all the charisma of a wet sponge, is making his own documentary Fathead: You’ve been fed a load of bologna. Here’s the trailer:

Aside from the shoddy production, noncharismatic host, and general crankery, I guess it’s not so bad. But I am growing concerned about the continual assault on what little good nutritional data is out there, and the misleading tactics of those defending food that is responsible for obesity and poor cardiovascular health.

For instance, let’s talk about how dishonest this guy is. In this attack on Spurlock:

he criticizes Spurlock for exaggerating the amount of calories he got for meals, finding in reality he got 3600-4300 calories for most meals, and at most about 4900 rather than the 5000 that was reported.

Fine, Spurlock exaggerated, but aren’t we missing the point? A 3600-4300 calorie day is perfectly fine, if you’re a lumberjack or Olympic athlete in training. For most sedentary Americans, it’s roughly 100% more calories than you need to maintain your weight every single day. I’m willing to pass on Spurlock’s exaggeration of the ill health of this diet from 100 to 150% normal caloric intake on this instance. To compound the problem, Naughton shows in his 28 day fast food log how he actually lost weight on a fast food diet. A far more dishonest deception occurs here, because Naughton accomplishes this feat by not eating the food:

As you can see, I kept the carb count down by tossing the buns or muffins from about half of my meals, with an order of hash browns or fries here and there. I didn’t drink sugary soda at all – I don’t like the stuff, and haven’t since I was a teenager.

There you go, if you throw away half of a 4000 calorie diet, you get about 2000 calories, and you lose weight. Spurlock’s whole point was that if you actually ate the meals they provided, and the sodas and sides people actually drink with this stuff, you get way too many calories. Naughton only showed if you throw out all the bread, don’t order sides, and don’t order sugar water, you lose weight. No shit Sherlock. Who’s the bigger liar here?

Looking over these previews this is a nice mixture of the tactics, we have questionable experts, conspiracies alleged, cherry-picking meals (ha!), and the classic “no problem” attack of a libertarian crank arguing against any kind of public health intervention to prevent people from eating this shit food. It’s clear there is a problem, but the libertarian view seems to be as long as people are poisoning themselves in huge numbers we shouldn’t do anything about it. No one is talking about knocking the food out of people’s hand (although this is an exaggeration in Naughton’s movie), but rather trying to prevent people from making bad choices through education, information, and sensible regulation of marketing practices of fast food companies.

I won’t speak for the CSPI though, I find them to be over the top, but Spurlock was dead on in his documentary. The meals offered by fast food joints like McDonalds are too calorie dense, and there is inadequate information provided to consumers about the quality and quantity of what they are receiving. The serving size issue may be intractable, but at the very least we should be able to let people know they are often eating their entire caloric needs for a day in a single meal. Further, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to forbid fast food advertising directed towards children. It’s manipulative, and the data are frightening how effective they are at changing kids food choices, for the worse, before they’ve even fully developed language. All of these things should be compatible with the conservative mindset. Information is good, and children are non-consenting. By the time they have any say about the images they get bombarded with on every TV ad and billboard, (not to mention ball-pits in the restaurant), they’ve already been so molded by the branding they’re unlikely to even realize they’ve had their food choices permanently altered by age 5.


  1. I used to respect libertarians more than typical conservatives, because at least they didn’t want to tell me how to live. But now I’m beginning to think that libertarianism is actually a mental disorder. Their foundation – that unregulated capitalism is the source of all goodness in the world – is utterly unshakable. It wouldn’t matter what happened – even if you push one to admit global warming, they still won’t do anything about it, because that would take regulation. They’d sacrifice the very fate of the earth for their principles – it’s sick.

  2. I’ve heard it said that if capitalism was a religion, then libertarians would be its evangelical wing (and Objectivists would be its hardcore fundamentalists). The fact that much of their underlying belief system is demonstrably wrong seems to have no effect on them… making them much like cdesign proponentsists, anti-AGW denialists and people who think that Cliff Richard is a decent musician.

  3. We have a ban on junk food advertising to children in the UK. So far, according only to media reports of official reports, it’s not working that well. Children’s favourite shows are frequently prime-time programmes popular with adults. So even though shows such as X-Factor etc. are the most popular among young children, the fact that far more adults were watching meant they do not fall within the restrictions. A survey by the Consumer Association Which? reported that during an analysis of one week’s programmes over the summer, none,/b> of the top 20 shows and only seven of the top 50 shows watched by children would be free of adverts for chocolate, cola, burgers and pizza. Meanwhile, foods such as Marmite and cheese can not be advertised during children’s programming (salt and fat content).

    In addition, some of the main commercial channels in the UK are abandoning children’s programming and won’t make any more because there is no advertising money. Allegedly. And, the BBC doesn’t feel the need to compete as they now own the market by default.

    There are now going to be more discussions about extending the scope of the ban to catch popular programmes. As ever, the law of unintended consequences bites back.

  4. I think this issue is a rough one to figure out what is information and what is misinformation, with the latter so motivated to make money.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  5. Isn’t Supersize Me about five years old? Who’s Naughton going after next, Edward R. Murrow?

  6. Well it’s safe to say that anyone trying to defend obesity and cholesterol is an idiot. It’s just like the people who say smoking is not harmful… what!?

  7. A libertarian FOAF tried Naughton’s fast food diet, but went him one better by throwing away ALL the food. He went broke and died!

  8. Mister DNA

    Isn’t Supersize Me about five years old? Who’s Naughton going after next, Edward R. Murrow?

    I hear he’s going after Herbert Morrison with a hard-hitting documentary entitled, “The Hindenburg: Actually Pretty Funny”.

  9. I have no doubt at all that I would lose weight by eating only junk food and not exercising.

    About a year ago, I was bored, and decided to perform an experiment– I got super serious about power lifting, and ate the appropriate diet for such an endeavor. At my ‘peak’, I was 150 lbs, 18% bf, and I could deadlift 250 lbs, easy.

    Then I started school, got Arnie puppy, got stressed, etc, and that game stopped. I also stopped eating ‘right’ (Ramen, Code Red Mountain Dew, lots of shit). I dropped to 130 lbs, 14% bf, deadlifting much lighter.

    I lost 20 lbs by eating shit and not exercising consistently.

    9 lbs of fat.

    11 lbs of muscle.

    Thats not good.

  10. Ampersand

    It’s not true that he found that Spurlock would have had 3580-4270 for “most meals,” as you claim. Spurlock’s movie claimed that the large majority of his meals were not supersized; so for “most meals,” Spurlock’s daily calorie intake was around 3,600. (You got the 4,270 upper end figure by including supersized meals).

    If this person is telling the truth, Spurlock edited his movie to include his doctor saying twice that Spurlock was eating over 5,000 calories a day. The difference between 3,600 and >5,000 calories a day is not trivial, and it’s disingenuous of you to dismiss this as “minor exaggeration.” Combined with Spurlock’s refusal to release his food log, it’s reasonable to be skeptical about Spurlock’s claim.

    Finally, I think that sharing data is a more honest position than not sharing data. The “fathead” guy made his food log available for us to read; this strikes me as obviously honest. If the documentary as a whole doesn’t acknowledge that he sometimes throws the buns away and generally skips the fries, however, then I would agree that he’s being dishonest. It’s hard to tell from just these clips if that’s what he does in the documentary as a whole, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *