2.40 Fast Food

Last week, I had my first McGriddle. Do you know what that is? If not, let me explain. Essentially, the McGriddle is a variation on the traditional McDonald's McMuffin, the difference being that the English muffin is replaced with two miniature pancakes. I had the egg and sausage McGriddle where in every bite you get a mixture of sweet tasting pancake, scrambled eggs, processed cheese and the famous McDonald’s ‘sausage’. I bring this up because I was – and still am – strangely conflicted over how much I actually enjoyed it. Conflicted with a dash of guilt. Although I was by myself, I might have even – out loud – said after my initial bite, “Ohhhhhh, ahhhhhhhh.” I slammed the McGriddle into my mouth as fast as it would go and I immediately wanted another one. I had to get out of there quickly or else I would have succumbed to this urge.

I thought it was all over. I was wrong.

The next morning, I passed a McDonald’s and found myself staring off into space. I realized I was daydreaming of the McGriddle. My mouth went dry, my palms clammy. But I did not give in.

Now I have a real problem.

Almost everyday, I go to the gym. I am not showing off – I usually go reluctantly. Across the street from the gym is a McDonald’s. Now, every morning, I have to make a moral decision. Do I go to the gym? Or do I listen to a sweet voice I hear being carried along by the wind that speaks to me of the McGriddle? “Just get one,” the voice says. “You deserve it.” Rationalizing, perhaps I could just grab a McGriddle and then work it off at the gym. This would be counter-productive. As an alcoholic has to make that choice everyday to not drink, I must make the choice not to taste the sweet and salty goodness that is the McGriddle. But it’s Friday – maybe I can reward myself? No.

On my trusty friend the internet, I found many studies about fast food addiction. The main problem with these studies is that they are accompanied by photographs of decadent, juicy-looking hamburgers and golden French fries. A study published in 2010 by Scripps Research Associate Professor Paul J. Kenny claims addiction to fast food is extremely difficult to stop.

The study demonstrated:

“In rat models the development of obesity coincides with a progressively deteriorating chemical balance in reward brain circuitries. As these pleasure centers in the brain become less and less responsive, rats quickly develop compulsive overeating habits, consuming larger quantities of high-calorie, high-fat foods until they become obese. The very same changes occur in the brains of rats that over consume cocaine or heroin, and are thought to play an important role in the development of compulsive drug use.”

The scientists fed the rats a diet modeled after the type that contributes to human obesity – easy to obtain high calorie, high fat foods like sausage, bacon and cheesecake. I realize that this study was conducted on rats, but I was quite alarmed by the findings. Especially since sausage, bacon and cheesecake are three of my favorite food groups.

The study continues:

“They always went for the worst types of food. When the junk food was removed and the scientists tried to put them on a nutritious diet – what they called ‘the salad bar option’ – the rats simply refused to eat. They basically starved themselves for two weeks after they were cut off from junk food.”

People want their hamburgers, they want them now and they want a lot of them. The British chef and television personality Jamie Oliver recently tried to start a food revolution by taking on lunchtime at Los Angeles area schools. School officials banned Oliver from filming in any of their cafeterias. Sure, it may have been reality television fodder with stunts like filling an old school bus with 57 tons of white sand to show how much sugar the Los Angeles School District feeds its children each week from the flavored milk it provides in school lunches, but he did have a point. We are addicted and we start kids on the road to junk food addiction early. What is flavored milk, anyway?

And then there’s guilt. I am not overweight but I am concerned with what I put into my body. I do like my chocolates and I enjoy a well-gravied poutine. A few years ago, I came up with a brilliant plan: I would stock my house with easy to eat fruits like bananas or apples and whenever I was hungry, instead of reaching for chips or cookies, I would grab a banana. In theory, this sounds good. In reality, who wants a banana? The result being that the bananas usually sat around (I’ll save it for tomorrow!) until they turned black. Maybe I should have banned the chips and cookies from my house all together so I didn’t have a choice? They were kept around for emergencies, even though emergencies were an everyday occurrence. The apples got soft. Soft like my will power.

What is in fast food that triggers something so strong that it takes over any sense of reasoning? Why are we obsessed with something that is so bad for us? There is a lot of money in fast food and although we are aware of its contents, KFC and Taco Bell aren’t going out of business anytime soon. So, we’re stuck with it but we do have a choice. And then I read more research by a neurobiologist named Sarah Leibowitz, who explains that exposure to fatty foods may quickly reconfigure the body’s hormonal system to want even more fat. “Hormonal changes may remove some element of free will,” Leibowitz said. I always thought that oppressive political regimes or violent acts would suppress our collective free will, I had no idea our real enemy was Ronald McDonald and Gidget ‘The Taco Bell Chihuahua’ Chipperton.

At my gym, the main area is a large space that has televisions mounted down the middle of the room. In front of the televisions are treadmills, stationary bikes and step machines. The gym is inside an Italian community centre and a large percentage of members are seniors. I noticed the other day that at least half of the televisions were set to the food channel. Have you ever watched the food channel? There are shows like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives where a spiky-haired host takes you to the most gluttonous places in America. Foods that should never be combined are put together. Close-ups of the host stuffing his face and ohing and ahing make up the majority of the show. And those poor elderly overweight people, trying to shave a few pounds, walking on treadmills while watching Guy Fieri shove food into his face. I would suggest changing the channel but that would take will power. Junk food is everywhere, we might as well learn to live with it.

I finished working out, left the gym and was confronted with the golden arches. “What the hell,” I thought, “it’s still breakfast time, I can get a McGriddle. I deserve it.”