How Can It Be Healthy If It's Fast?


An experiment reported in the August Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the acute cardiovascular effects of a standard burger-and-fries McDonald's meal were indistinguishable from those of an  alternative meal offered by the same restaurant that is less fatty and higher in vitamin C. Predictably, the study has been interpreted as an indictment of the fast food industry, demonstrating that chains like McDonald's are only pretending to offer healthier options. "'Healthy' Fast Foods Not Easier on the Heart," Reuters announced, while the New York Post warned, "'Health' Foods Just As Bad." In a press release that appeared in my in-box yesterday, John Banzhaf, the George Washington University law professor who sees a lawsuit in almost every news item, opines:

A fast food chain which promoted a meal of a vegetarian burger plus salad, fruit, yogurt, and orange juice as healthier than a typical fast food meal of a hamburger, fries, ketchup, and a carbonated drink, knowing that both presented the same risk of a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problem, could be guilty of the same deception as cigarette makers who promoted low tar and nicotine cigarettes while studies showed that they were just as dangerous as ordinary brands.

If anyone has been misleading the public in this area, it's not the fast food chains. According to standard nutritional guidelines, the veggie burger meal is healthier: It has 31 grams of fat, including four grams of saturated fat and virtually no trans fat, compared to 49, 14, and eight grams, respectively, in the standard meal; it has about 200 fewer calories and 20 times as much vitamin C. The fact that the meal is produced by a big corporation, served quickly, and sold cheaply does not magically nullify these differences. So either the experts have been giving us bad advice about healthy eating or the measures of carviovascular risk used in the study are not what they're cracked up to be.

The main variable was endothelial function, which measures the performance of cells that line blood vessels and help control blood flow. Decreased endothelial function, which is believed to be a marker for cardiovascular disease, has been found to follow consumption of high-fat meals in other studies. It is also observed in subjects briefly exposed to secondhand smoke, which is one much-distorted source of hysterical warnings that sitting next to a smoker for a half-hour (or even 30 seconds) might give you a heart attack. But the long-term significance of this temporary, short-term effect is unclear, and the fast food study casts further doubt on its meaning.