Blog | Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Unhappy meal and the right to be obese

Last July, McDonalds' Happy Meals became a little less happy. Kids in pursuit of culinary happiness will have to be satisfied with fewer French fries and some added fruit. Surprisingly, the calorie count only decreased by 20%. McDonalds held firm on the request to discontinue toys in the Happy Meals, despite opponents' arguments that these trinkets emit an encrypted electronic signal that lure kids to the golden arches.

Fastfood by happymealy via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseAn Indiana billboard offers this announcement along with a graphic photograph that depicts innocent hot dogs masquerading as cigarettes in a cigarette package. WARNING: HOT DOGS CAN WRECK YOUR HEALTH."

This publicity effort was spearheaded by the carniphobic group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). This organization advocates that all of us restrict ourselves to the pleasure of an all-plant diet. The billboard was a shrewd move. Beforehand, none of us had ever heard of these guys. Now, for a few hundred bucks, they achieved national exposure.

I'm for folks making informed choices. I don't like it when the government or other organizations try to impose their views and practices on the rest of us. If I want to start and end my days with a Big Mac or two, then I should be free to do so without interference from others. Just as I would not lean on my vegan friends to savor some barbecued chicken wings, I don't want to cajoled or shamed into giving up burgers for some kind of seaweed surprise.

Veggie enthusiasts point to research that concludes that carnivorous humans have higher cancer rates. If you can't easily separate a man from his steak, then bring cancer into the conversation. This research is murky and there are enough conflicting results to satisfy all points of view on this issue.

Indeed, if we eliminated all foods that have been linked to cancer, we might all be nourished by total parenteral nutrition (TPN) infused intravenously, as we do for hospitalized patients who cannot tolerate an oral diet. Of course, TPN would have to be chemically analyzed by an independent group, commissioned by the PCRM, to verify that no nano-traces of animal products were present.

I'm not in favor of obesity. As a physician and a citizen, I counsel folks to make wise food and beverage choices. But, it is their choice to make, not my mandate to impose. If more calories and girth make folks happier, and they are informed of the potential consequences, then they should be permitted to live without interference.

Is it society's responsibility to inform the citizenry of dietary risks, or does the individual have a responsibility to exercise due diligence? In 1890, an article in the Harvard Law Review (Do they still eat meat at Harvard?) penned by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, opined that we have a right to be left alone, although this language does not appear in the Constitution. Indeed, doesn't this "right" define the relationship that we have with our government? It would have been more fun on this post if the "right to be left alone" was written by Felix "Frankfurter," who was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

What's your definition of a "Happy Meal"? A greasy burger smothered with onions and coated with melted cheese? Kentucky Fried Chicken? Sugarless granola with 6.5 oz. of skim milk? A carrot smoothie with probiotics? TPN?

The PCRM argues that hot dogs and similar products should carry warning labels, such as appear on cigarette packages. My response? Where would the warning labels stop? Ice cream? Chocolate? White bread?

The American Meat Institute has challenged the PCRM's assertions, as we would expect. Both sides likely spin stuff to serve their agendas. One side eats Big Macs with relish. But, one side is telling Whoppers.

This post by Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.