Jacob Sullum

 For instance, an Egg McMuffin, orange juice and coffee for breakfast; a grilled chicken bacon ranch salad and iced tea for lunch; and a double cheeseburger, medium fries and diet Coke for dinner total fewer than 1,800 calories, well under the 2,500 Spurlock's doctor says he needed to maintain his starting weight of 185 pounds. By contrast, Spurlock says he consumed some 5,000 calories a day, while deliberately avoiding physical activity.

 In short, Spurlock's "experiment" proves nothing but basic physics. Still, he is right in suggesting there's an association between the proliferation of restaurants and Americans' bulging bellies. That impression was confirmed by a statistical analysis the National Bureau of Economic Research published in October 2002.

 At the same time, the researchers emphasized that "the growth in these restaurants, and especially fast-food restaurants, is to a large extent a response to the increasing scarcity and increasing value of household or nonmarket time." In other words, economic changes such as greater participation in the labor market by women have increased the demand for fast, convenient meals.

 As the NBER's summary of the paper put it, "fast-food or convenience meals should rightly be considered as much an effect as a cause of American eating patterns." Spurlock seems to grasp this point. "Why do we go to fast-food restaurants?" he said at the D.C. film festival. "Because it's easy."

 Although he conceded that fast-food chains respond to consumer demand, Spurlock criticized them for failing to provide conspicuous nutritional information. He praised TGI Friday's for deciding to include calorie counts on its menus and suggested McDonald's could do the same, but "they fear losing money."

 Even if that's true, it's not the end of the story. Presumably TGI Friday's decided it could make money by changing its menus, attracting business from competitors who are less forthcoming. The market will determine who is right.

 Even while urging his audience to demand healthier options, Spurlock warned that fast-food chains "owe their loyalty to stockholders, not to you." If he had taken Ray Kroc's observation to heart, he would have realized that stockholders get what they want only when customers do.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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