It is said that fast food is unhealthy, that it will make you fat and make you dead. But global statistics show something very different.
As I bit down into that thick, juicy sausage and egg mcmuffin I refused to believe that it would soon be doing me bodily harm. It was just what my body wanted on a morning of travel, after a night of riding trains and eating little. As I washed each bite down with that relatively good McDonald’s coffee, all that Supersize Me bullshit seemed to be just that.
Fast food is a caloric power pack, it is an unusual Godsend for travelers. Fast food has massive amounts of the stuff that humans crave: protein, fat, carbs, sugar, and salt. The later four are difficult to find in nature, but they have always been the stuff that has supported successful groups of people throughout our evolution. How can I believe that this is all of a sudden bad for my health?
I’ve spent 13 years traveling through over 50 countries before I got tied up in China for the long haul. In that time a pattern emerged: it is the richest, healthiest, longest living societies that have the most McDonalds restaurants and fast food chains. How does this work? How can places be loaded with fast food and still be beacons of good health? There is more to this story.
Below is a list of the top 10 countries that have the most McDonalds restaurants per capita along with their global rankings for longevity, obesity, and health.
In addition to having the most McDonalds restaurants per capita, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, Canada, France, and the USA are also among the top 10 of countries that consume the most fast food in general. So the high prevalence of McDonalds in these places is representative of a broader trend of fast food consumption, rather than a strong preference for this one particular chain.
So the most healthy countries on the planet also happen to be those consuming the most fast food. Of the top 10 countries that have the most McDonalds restaurants per capita, 9 rank in the global top 20 for longevity. In fact, 6 of the top 10 longest living populations also rank in the top ten for McDonalds consumption.
Now, it would be logical to conclude that, as McDonalds and other fast food joints generally serve very fatty, sugary, salty foods, the countries eating the most of it should be among the fattest on earth, right? No. In fact, the only top-10 McDonalds country that ranks in the upper realms of the WHO’s obesity index is the USA — and that culture has a psychosis with eating that goes far beyond fast food. The other 9 countries with the most McDonalds per capita are in the median to lower regions of the obesity index. In other words, they’re normal.
But that’s not all:
Beyond a lack of obesity and an excess of longevity, 9 out of the top 10 McDonalds (fast food) nations rank in the top 20 of the World Bank’s healthiest countries index. So if most of the cultures eating the most McDonalds and fast food tend to not be the fattest, tend to live the longest, and are actually some of the healthiest countries on earth, how does this add up against the fact that fast food is supposed to be unhealthy?
Fast food is supposed to make you fat and dead, right?
The Japanese diet and longevity are often praised around the world, but the streets of that country are paved in McDonalds and 7-11s. Mainland Europe and Scandinavia are sold abroad as places that value health and haven’t forgotten their culinary roots, but when you go there you see everybody eating at fast food burger and hot dog joints every day. In fact, 54 percent of all restaurant revenue in France is generated by the fast food industry — aren’t these people supposed to be eating long, healthy, multi-course meals? How can these societies be gobbling down the fast food and, statistically, remaining healthy too? This story isn’t as simple as eat fast food, get fat, die.
I am not going to sit here and say that compulsively eating fast food everyday is a healthy thing to do. Of course, correlation does not necessarily indicate causation. What I will say is that there seems to be other factors which impact health more voraciously than fast food. The culture of eating — meaning when and how much you eat at a time — seems to have a far bigger impact on health that what you eat, within reason. If you gorge yourself habitually, eat every time you have nothing better to do, and live a lethargic lifestyle, are undersexed and emotionally downtrodden, you’re probably not going to be a very healthy individual no matter what you chew on.
Beyond that, the presence of McDonalds and international fast food chains are a direct indication of a place’s level of development. The more modernized and developed a place is, the more fast food it tends to have available. All 10 top McDonalds countries analyzed above are also in the top 20 of the human development index. Along those lines, 5 of the top McDonalds nations were selected among the top 10 cleanest countries in the world. In terms of longevity and general health is concerned, it’s not all about food.
When the healthiest cultures in the world are filling their faces with greasy, fast food crap, what does that say for our concept of what constitutes a healthy diet as a whole? We are currently in an insane period where more people are eating better than ever before in human history. Cultures have come together and we’ve combined meat with dairy with poultry with starch with fruits with vegetables into a dietary construct that we call a balanced diet. Entire societies have gained height by inches in a single generation. The world is eating better now than ever, even with the proliferation of fast food. Seriously, the nutritional content of a cheeseburger — meat combined with dairy, starch, and vegetables — would be the pinnacle of a good meal for most cultures throughout human existence . . . and this is what we call junk food.
It is remarkable that at this juncture of medical knowledge we still seem to have little clue about how food actually impacts our bodies. Each modern generation produces its own myths concerning health. Pundits and profiteers produce their reports and propagate their messages, where they’re then assembled into a point of view that a culture repeats to itself for a while. Then, more often than not, this worldview shifts the following generation, and what used to be good is now bad and what was bad, well, may not actually be so bad after all. Food morality has become this strange new code of conduct, even a rite of passage for entering some groups. People everywhere now seem to be yacking about what food is going to kill you or what food will save you. After 12,000 years of eating wheat, it is apparently not meant for human consumption anymore. Meat kills. Meat saves. Saturated fat gives you heart attacks. There is no connection between the consumption of saturated fats and heart disease. Where people once used to fight and battle over religion we now rank and file each other in accords to what food we eat. Perhaps we have become spoiled from living in this time of plenty.
I’m just going to sit here and really enjoy every bite of this sausage and egg mcmuffin. It cost me $2. It took me roughly 6 minutes to make the money to pay for it. I am getting 440 calories, 21 grams of protein, significant amounts of vitamin A, calcium, and iron from 6 minutes of labor. There has never been another era in human history that I could get so much nutrition and fuel for so little time and effort.
I will ignore the people who call this food junk, because I know that I don’t gorge myself with it. I know that I eat a standard amount of food, that I’m active, generally pretty happy, and not a pound overweight. I also know that when looked at through the lens of health and longevity, fast food may not be the pernicious influence it is blamed to be. Sure, it is processed food and not fresh, but when 9 of the top 10 fast food countries in the world are also the healthiest, I can’t explain this any other way.
*Data from the Guardian’s Data Blog, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization.