Two routes, two vehicles, same destination

Oh I think it’s time for a rant. Another rant of mine about how people are totally missing the point when it comes to diet, nutrition, and finger-pointing.

I have just watched Fat Head, a 2009 documentary rebuttal to Supersize Me, and I have so many things to say. Don’t be alarmed though – I had so much to say on so many different topics that I have had to weed some of them out. I will try to keep this as relevant to health and fitness and solid commentary as possible, and leave out the personal issues. But let’s face it, it’s the personal issues that make things entertaining to write and to read, so here’s a half-hearted apology in case I let any slip in.

Firstly, I will leave out my comments on the unnecessary mockery of Spurlock and his documentary. I understand that Tom Naughton in a comedian. Being funny is what he does, and indeed what he did in Fat Head. Unfortunately, although he makes a very good point that policy makers and health food “evangelists” (in commas to signify that I am appropriating his term – and not in indication of disagreement with its use) have to stop acting like consumers are stupid, when it comes to health and diet people are actually a lot less informed than you might think. In fact, if you have ever delved deeper than the pages of a glossy magazine for nutrition information, then you are already more informed than a lot of people I have spoken to about the subject. And I avoid speaking to people about nutrition as much as I possibly can, believe it or not. Anyway, the point is that a lot of people can’t seem to dissociate more-or-less gentle mockery from key facts and messages. Because Fat Head is very entertaining and watchable, it’s easy to find yourself gently swept down the “Down with Spurlock” route into the comparisons with Prohibition-era dry movement activists and the commentary on the unnecessary inclusion of updates on Spurlock’s sex life. Even I shudder at the way vegans are portrayed in Supersize Me.

Anyway, so that’s cool. I get it. Naughton is being funny – “Would you go to McDonald’s for broccoli if they wrapped in in a shiny red carton and called in the McBroccoli?” – and everyone likes to laugh at vegetarians and vegans. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate the myth that vegans have no sense of humour.

Besides, I am four years late to watch this documentary, so any attempt to review it properly would be a fart in the wind. Not to mention that anyone who puts themselves in the public eye with any sort of opinion has already undoubtedly been on the receiving end of more than their fair share of abuse, so I really don’t want to go down that road.

One thing that struck me, though, and really really bugged me, was the lack of a clear, solidly defined argument and point throughout the documentary. Basically, the idea was: eat a solid diet of fast food to prove that you can lose weight and be healthy whilst including fast food in your diet. He had a checkup at the beginning, and at the end, gave us all the statistics and food logs and numbers – which, he rightly points out, Spurlock does not do – and augments his journey with some humorous conversation with fast food aficionados and fairly pointless interviews with random people in white coats (whilst telling us that the opposition’s people in white coats were paid off – so forgive me for not putting much stock in titles and lab coats), as well as some very valid and important social commentary on the perceived and supposed links between diet, ethnicity, and intelligence, and the need to re-evaluate the definition of obesity.

So he loses weight – as if we hadn’t seen that coming – as well as body fat (measured by bioelectrical impedance, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the reads were taken at the same time of day, at similar levels of hydration, after similar amounts of physical activity, etc). And yet he tells us that he has increased the amount of exercise, and is cutting out grains, starches, drinking diet soft drinks and keeping his carbohydrate intake to 100g per day! He makes so many valid points about poor scientific methods, and then goes and conducts two experiments in one?

Again – I get it – he is proving that a diet of fast food does not make one fat and unhealthy. As well as stating that responsibility in making healthy choices rests with individuals and not commercial companies, and that nobody is being forced to eat an unhealthy diet and not exercise. In the same way that I advocate eating a bit of everything in moderation, and manipulating the timing of one’s macronutrient intake to aid with weight loss, and enjoying one’s food and focussing on being active and healthy, he is saying, “Go ahead, eat fast food if you want, it won’t make you fat if you look out for X, Y and Z”. As I have said before, it’s what’s inside the package that counts, not the wrapping paper. But then, you don’t go and make a documentary about how the wrapping paper that some guy dissed in his documentary is actually the best wrapping paper. Still following?

So Naughton goes on and on about how Spurlock is an idiot for suggesting that the government and regulatory bodies do something to stop fast food chains doing their thing – then suggests that government and regulatory bodies should do the opposite. Pot, kettle, black – I rest my case.

He also finds all sorts of experts ready to tell us we should be eating more animal fat because it’s more natural than vegetable fats – but is conducting an experiment to prove that packaged hyper-modern fast food is not that bad for us. These same experts in one breath explain that fat is essential to life (yes) and that trans fats are bad for us (yes) and that that is why we need to eat animal fat (umm…?).

I think that pretty much sums up the movie and its pitfalls. A number of very important points were made, however, which need to be highlighted:

1. Fat people are not stupid. They are not lazy. They are not necessarily unhealthy.

2. BMI is almost entirely useless, weight is even more so, and bodyfat percentage is not even close to the whole story when it comes to talking about health. Health is a big picture, and those are all individual squares in a paint-by-numbers.

3. Macronutrients matter as much as calories. Calories matter as much as macronutrients. Exercise matters as much as diet, and diet matters as much as exercise.

4. Don’t trust “experts”, especially when on the subject of food, agriculture, or tobacco, and even less when they are featured in a movie documentary.

There were also some interesting points raised on carbohydrates, grains, fats, saturated fats, and “the most natural diet we have evolved on”, but I have been meaning to write about the Paleo diet for months and I will save that for a whole new post. Or two.

Fat Head and its accompanying blog serve as an important reminder not to trust anyone trying to tell you what to eat. Not Spurlock, not Naughton, not the government, not a person in a white lab coat, not an eccentric-looking individual in a tweed jacket surrounded by books, not your friend’s boyfriend’s personal trainer’s bikini model girlfriend. Beyond that, it is nothing more than an entertaining way to spend an hour and 44 minutes. It has also served to solidify my increasingly narrowed belief that the only dietary advice that should be given ever can be summed up in three simple words: eat real food.