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The Physicians Committee

Anti-McDonald’s Commercial Backed by Solid Science

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
This opinion piece was printed in the Sun-Sentinel on Oct. 10, 2010.

It’s been called “morbid” and “graphic.” But these descriptions shouldn’t be surprising since the ad was set in a morgue.

The new TV commercial created by our nonprofit organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, takes aim at McDonald’s high-fat menu. The ad shows a dead man on a gurney still clutching a half-eaten cheeseburger. The golden arches appear above the man’s feet. “I was lovin’ it,” the ad says.

We recently tried to air the ad on Miami TV to call attention to the link between the city’s extremely high rate of heart disease deaths and high concentration of fast food.  But Miami stations turned the ad down, even though it had already aired on D.C. TV.

A station in West Palm Beach approved the ad, but then pulled it at the last minute, apparently concerned about the reaction of McDonald’s, which spends about $2 billion a year on advertising.  

Of course McDonald’s doesn’t like this ad. But as a dietitian who helped create the commercial, I think it’s crucial to remind Miami, which has the second highest rate of heart disease deaths in the country, that fast food and heart disease have a strong connection.

Heart disease kills nearly 1,500 residents of Miami each year. But fast-food joints continue to pop up across the city. A survey our organization conducted found that Miami has four McDonald’s, Burger King, or KFC locations per square mile. This 35-square-mile city has 63 McDonald’s restaurants.

McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain, continues to serve a long list of high-fat, high-cholesterol items and offers almost no healthful choices. When I examined McDonald’s menu and nutrition facts recently, I was disturbed to find a salad that has more fat and calories than the infamous Big Mac. Some of the chain’s kids meals have about as much sodium as a child should consume in an entire day.

Our ad is based on abundant scientific evidence that meat-heavy fast-food menus are contributing to our nation’s outrageous rates of heart disease and other chronic diseases.

Fast-food consumption has strong positive associations with weight gain and insulin resistance, according to a 2005 study in the Lancet. This suggests that fast food increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes—two key risk factors for heart attacks. A 2005 study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health found that mortality and admissions for acute coronary syndromes are higher in regions with greater numbers of fast-food restaurants.

Some critics of our commercial claim there's no harm in eating fast food occasionally. But it’s clear that Miami residents—and all Americans—eat a lot of fast food. And researchers have found that even one high-fat meaty meal can be harmful. A 2007 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology finds that consuming a single high-fat meal alters proper blood vessel functioning.

Researchers and health care professionals are well aware of the link between heart disease and fast food. But the response from some has been questionable at best. Researchers in the United Kingdom recently published a paper suggesting that fast-food joints hand out cholesterol-lowering statins with their burgers and shakes to neutralize the negative health effects of these foods. There is also a growing push for weight-loss surgery and other radical methods of counteracting obesity.

Some think our commercial goes too far, but I think what’s really extreme is the disturbing notion that we can best fight our obesity epidemic and appalling heart disease rates by simply consuming more cholesterol-lowering drugs and diet pills and having weight-loss surgery.

Our ad encourages viewers to consider simple dietary changes and “make it vegetarian” tonight. That’s because extensive research finds that vegetarian and vegan diets may help prevent and even reverse heart disease and other chronic diseases. And unlike statins, plant-based diets have only positive “side effects.”

Too many Americans don’t know about the power of wise food choices. That’s why public education efforts like our commercial are necessary—even if some burger executives aren’t pleased by criticism of their Happy Meals.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is a dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

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