A couple of years ago I got an email from a guy named Tom Naughton asking if he could come interview me for a movie he was making that was supposed to kind of be a counterpoint to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me! I hadn’t seen Spurlock’s film at the time, but I knew enough about it that I was wary of anyone who wanted to make a film maybe showing fast food places in a positive light. I wrote Tom back and suggested we talk. Once he had me on the phone, Tom was able to make me realize that his film was not pro fast food, but was pro personal responsibility. And that it was pro low-carb, since the diet he went on and lost weight on eating at nothing but fast food restaurants was a low-carb diet.
He came to visit with all his movie making paraphernalia and we set to the interview, which I wrote about in a previous post. We kept in contact over the intervening years, and I watched multiple versions of the film as it evolved and got better and better with each new iteration. Finally, Tom called to tell me Fat Head was finished. MD and I attended the premiere of the movie a few weeks ago (we are pictured above with Tom at said premiere), and I can tell you that folks were laughing their heads off. It’s a very funny movie made by a guy who is a professional comedian. Along with being funny, however, the film is exceedingly thought provoking. I can’t imagine anyone who might be anti low-carb watching it and coming away feeling the same.
Tom has been dogged in his mission to actually get this film made and distributed. And he has succeeded in a world where few do, the world of the independent filmmaker. He has a distributor (which is the movie equivalent to a book agent) and has already had the film picked up in some foreign venues. Today, Feb. 3, Fat Head goes on sale at Amazon.com. I urge you to click here to get a copy and watch it. You’ll be glad you did.
One of the questions I’m asked constantly by people who have achieved success on low-carb diets is what can we all do to help spread the word? I always tell them to buy books (and not just mine) and give them away or loan them out. The response I almost always get is that no one will read a book. Well, they will probably watch a movie, especially one as funny and entertaining as Fat Head. Even if you don’t buy one to give to someone, buy one for yourself because the movie is a real treat. Can you think of a better way to spend a pleasant hour and a half than to watch a bunch of low-fat twits get pilloried? Plus, Tom has witnessed firsthand the power of the low-carb diet to improve health and bring about weight loss, and has not just exulted in his own success, but has put his money where his mouth is. He has financed every cent of this movie out of his own hip pocket. And, as we all know, movies are not inexpensive to produce. He has done a great service for the low-carb community, and we need to do our part to help pay him back. And to encourage others to take the risk to move the ball closer to the goal.
If you want to get a little taste of what the movie is all about and watch some video clips, check out the website.
To get an even more in depth take on the movie, here is an interview I did with the filmmaker himself.
Q: What inspired you to make a film challenging Super Size Me?
A: I actually didn’t set out to take on Super Size Me. I began this project thinking it would be maybe a half-hour humor piece about how we treat fat people in American society. I watched Super Size Me as part of my research. And to be honest, I thought Super Size Me was very well done and very amusing, but at the same time a couple of things about it really bugged me. One was the overall premise, that it’s McDonald’s fault people are getting fatter. That’s ridiculous. Ronald McDonald can’t force you to eat anything, and most people eat at McDonald’s once in awhile, not everyday.
But what really bugged me was when I realized Spurlock’s math didn’t add up. I spent a good part of my adult life as a serial dieter, so I have a pretty good idea what the calorie counts are at McDonald’s. When Spurlock’s nutritionist told him he was consuming 5000 calories per day, alarm bells went off in my head. There’s no way you can consume that many calories at McDonald’s if you’re following his supposed rules.
Q: So in your opinion, Super Size Me is essentially dishonest.
A: Yes, it’s dishonest. Long before I saw it, I heard people talk about how Super Size Me shows what would happen if you just ate three meals per day at McDonald’s. But that’s not what it shows. It shows what would happen if you decided to stuff yourself like crazy so you could gain weight and make a movie about it. You could stuff yourself at a vegan restaurant and gain just as much weight, if that was your goal.
Q: You did exactly the opposite: you ate nothing but fast food for a month and lost weight. How did you manage that?
A: I did it by intentionally ignoring the standard-issue nutrition advice. My doctor of course warned me that if I was going to live on fast food, I should eat as many salads and grilled chicken breasts as I could so I wouldn’t consume too much fat. But I knew better. I ate a lot of fat, because fat is what keeps you feeling full and satisfied. But I did limit my carbohydrates to about 100 per day, because that’s the real key to losing weight, at least for me.
Q: You say you ignored the standard advice because you knew better. How did you know better?
A: Personal experience for one. Low-fat diets never worked for me. I’d lose a little weight and then stall, plus I’d end up feeling lethargic and depressed. The first time I really lost weight and felt good doing it was when I tried The Zone diet, which was the first time I seriously cut down on my carbohydrates.
Q: The Zone diet isn’t exactly a low-carbohydrate diet.
A: No, but keep in mind, I’d been living on a more or less vegetarian diet because I thought it was good for my health, so I was eating a lot of rice and potatoes and pasta. That seems crazy to me now, because of course I kept gaining weight in spite of working out regularly and walking several miles per week. I just figured it was because I was getting older.
So when I finally tried The Zone diet, I was consuming maybe 170 carbohydrates per day, which isn’t exactly low, but it was a lot lower than I’d been consuming. And the weight started to drop off. I didn’t understand much about the effects of insulin at the time, but I did understand that cutting back on sugar and starch was making it so I could lose weight without feeling like I was starving.
Q: On your fast-food diet, you counted calories as well as carbohydrates. How many calories did you consume, and what did you eat to stay under the limit?
A: I set a target of 2000 calories per day and kept it pretty close to that. Unlike Morgan Spurlock, I’m not afraid to show people what I consumed, so my daily menus are posted on our web site, but to answer the question, I basically lived on a diet that’s about midway between The Zone and Protein Power. Since I wanted to do an honest fast-food diet, I consumed more starch than I would on a true low-carb diet.
So a typical day might be two Egg McMuffins with only half of each muffin and an order of hash browns for breakfast, a double quarter-pounder with cheese for lunch, and another one for dinner, or maybe one of their chicken salads. I also ate a lot of the chicken strips, which are pretty tasty, but unfortunately that meant I was taking in some trans fats. I think they’ve finally gotten rid of the trans fats, but they were still using them for frying when I was on the diet.
Q: And you ate nothing but McDonald’s?
A: It was all fast food, and it was mostly McDonald’s, but it wasn’t all McDonald’s. I also ate at Carl’s Jr., KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King and a couple of others. I ate at least one or two meals at McDonald’s pretty much every day.
Q: Was it difficult, eating nothing but fast food for a month? I don’t think I could do it. In fact, I’m not sure I could eat nothing but fast food for a week.
A: It got a little tiresome by the end. I was bored with eating the same half-dozen meals over and over. That’s why I thought it was ridiculous when Spurlock played up the idea that McDonald’s food is addicting. Addictions are progressive. People consume more and more of the addicting substance, despite the bad effects it’s having on their health. After eating nothing but fast food for a month, I didn’t touch the stuff for awhile. Addicting? Give me a break.
Q: Are you worried that you’ll be seen as an apologist for the fast-food industry? After all, they’re not exactly selling health food. As you may recall, that’s one of the reasons I was hesitant to even be interviewed for this movie.
A: No, they’re not selling health food, and I don’t portray it as health food in this film. In fact, when I met with some people from McDonald’s to get permission to shoot in their restaurants, I made it clear I wasn’t going to claim their food is good for you.
But it doesn’t have to be bad for you either if you’re smart about the choices you make, and that’s one of the main points I was trying to make in this film. You can make good choices or bad choices at McDonald’s, just like you can make good choices or bad choices in the grocery store. People are going to eat fast food in today’s society, like it or not, so they may as well learn to make reasonably smart choices.
Q: And McDonald’s had nothing to do with this film being made?
A: Other than giving me permission to shoot in their restaurants, no. And even that took some doing on my part. After what Spurlock did to them, they were understandably a bit skittish about allowing some guy with a camera to come in and film himself eating there.
Q: So you lost weight on a fast-food diet, and you demonstrate pretty convincingly that Morgan Spurlock’s numbers don’t add up. But there’s a whole lot more to this film than just disputing Super Size Me.
A: Absolutely. Once I started working on this film and doing some research into the so-called obesity epidemic and what’s really causing it, and especially once I started looking into the research on fat and cholesterol and heart disease, I was stunned at how much nonsense passes for real science these days. Most of the dietary advice we’ve been hearing for the past 40 years is just plain wrong. In fact, it’s worse than wrong; it’s harmful. That’s when it began to sink in with me that this film should be way more than just a reply to Super Size Me. I changed the focus of the film significantly as I went along.
Q: You call it the “so-called” obesity epidemic. Do you really believe there is no obesity epidemic?
A: You and I have already debated this one back and forth, so let me clarify my position for your readers. There are definitely more fat people in America now than when I was a kid. Look around any busy public place, and you’ll see these big, heavy people going by. So I’m not disputing that we’ve gotten fatter.
But when I look around, say, a mall or an airport, most of the people I see don’t look overweight to me, so I don’t buy this notion that two-thirds of us are overweight. And I certainly don’t think a quarter of all Americans are obese. The figures have been wildly exaggerated, both by the Centers for Disease Control and by the weight-loss industry, each for their own reasons.
Q: What are those reasons? What do they gain by exaggerating the numbers?
A: The CDC needs epidemics to justify their budget. They were originally created to wipe out real diseases, things like polio and influenza and malaria. Well, you’re not going to catch obesity from some virus floating around, you’re not going to get it from the person sitting next to you, so frankly, I don’t think this is even the CDC’s problem to tackle.
The weight-loss industry wants obesity declared a disease so they can get insurance reimbursements for weight-loss treatments and weight-loss drugs. But to make that happen, they’ve got to create the impression of this looming national health crisis. So they use stupid measurements like the Body Mass Index to juke up the statistics. And by focusing on people’s weight or BMI, they’re going after the wrong problem.
Q: In your film, you say the real epidemic is high blood sugar. Why do you say that?
On your blog, you frequently write about how researchers often confuse correlation with causation. That’s what I think has happened with the so-called obesity epidemic; they’ve confused a cause with a symptom. We know fat people tend to have more health problems, so they decided being fat is the cause of all these health problems. But being fat isn’t the cause; it’s a symptom. And it’s also possible to be fat and healthy.
I’m a walking example of that. A typical checkup for me goes something like this: “Well let’s see … blood pressure is good, blood sugar is normal, resting heart rate is very good, triglycerides are excellent, HDL is outstanding, stress-test results are excellent, muscle tone is very good. You’re healthy as a horse, Mr. Naughton. But you really should go on a low-fat diet and try to lose 20 or 30 pounds.” And I’m usually hearing this from some doctor who probably couldn’t keep up with me on one of my five-mile hikes.
So again, I don’t think carrying around some extra weight is a health hazard all by itself. But high blood sugar is unhealthy, no doubt about it. And we’ve got millions and millions of people these days walking around with high blood sugar. Just look at the skyrocketing rate of type II diabetes over the past few decades.
We have people in my family who are thin and look good in their clothes, but they have type II diabetes. So I think it’s misguided to focus so much on being fat or thin. The focus should be on keeping your blood sugar normal. Do that and the weight will probably take care of itself over time.
Q: You blame the blood-sugar problems we have today on poor old George McGovern.
A: Well, he was certainly part of it. Going back at least as far as Ancel Keys, we’ve had this misguided attempt to reduce heart disease by telling people to cut back on dietary fat, or to avoid animal fats and switch to vegetable fats. It didn’t seem to occur to any of them back then that heart disease rates were going up precisely at the same time that people were consuming less animal fat and more of these Frankenstein vegetable fats, like chemically processed corn oil and soybean oil and margarine.
So George McGovern didn’t start the anti-fat campaign, but unfortunately he gave it the official stamp of approval from the federal government, and that’s when a lot of people began to take it seriously. That’s when you couldn’t walk into a bookstore or open a newspaper without seeing all these books and articles telling us to cut back on fat and eat more whole grains. So we became a nation of starch-eaters, and the rest is history.
Q: You make several references to Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories in your film. How much influence did Gary’s book have on the direction of the film?
A: I was already finished with my third edit of Fat Head when Good Calories, Bad Calories hit the bookstores, although I had read some of Gary’s articles while researching the film, and those were certainly eye-opening.
When I finally read Good Calories, Bad Calories, it blew me away. I finally understood, at the cellular and hormonal level, how carbohydrates had made me fat over the years, and why low-fat diets always made me ravenously hungry and depressed.
I finally understood why there are so many frustrated dieters in the world, trying to lose fat on diets that are basically telling their bodies to store fat. And I understood why people like my wife and son can’t seem to gain weight no matter what they eat. They’re not skinny because they’re more disciplined than the rest of us; they just have bodies that reach homeostasis at a very low level of fat accumulation. If my wife is hungry, she eats. She doesn’t starve herself into being thin.
So I did some fairly substantial cutting to make room for what I learned from Gary’s book. And after you put me in touch with him, he generously agreed to proof the script for technical accuracy. I knew I’d have to simplify the science quite a bit in order to translate it into a film for the general public, but I wanted to avoid simplifying to the point of being incorrect. Gary helped me keep it simple, but accurate.
Q: Gary’s work is highlighted in the film, but he doesn’t appear in any interviews. Were you unable to work out the logistics for an interview?
A: I would’ve happily flown to New York or wherever to get Gary on film, and he was open to the idea, but his publisher wasn’t crazy about the idea of him appearing in a film that’s billed as a comedy-documentary. There are a lot of silly moments in this film, all those animated cartoon bits and such, and his publisher was afraid it would detract from Gary’s credibility among the white-coat crowd.
And I think his publisher probably made the right call. Much as I would’ve loved to have Gary talk about his own work in my film, I understand that his mission right now is to convince the medical and academic types that the prevailing dietary theories are wrong, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for giving those people any reason to ignore him. So he can attack their misguided theories with serious science, and I’ll attack them with humor. Two fronts, same battle.
Q: Speaking of humor, there’s quite a lot of it in your film. How much of that was planned, and how much of it just happened?
A: I’d always planned for this to be a comedy, even back when it was going to be a short piece about how we treat fat people. I spent a lot of years as a traveling standup comedian, and I like producing funny material. It comes naturally to me.
But the humor also serves an important, calculated purpose: it makes people want to watch the film. Funny documentaries get far more attention on average than serious documentaries. They get more press coverage, and they sell more copies.
So a lot of the humor was planned, definitely. The animations, the songs, the scenes where I parody Spurlock, those were all by design. But some of the funniest moments were a matter of good, old-fashioned luck. I conducted several hours of person-on-the-street interviews, and some people just happened to be funny. That’s luck. On the other hand, some people were funny when I had the lens cap on, or didn’t notice the battery had gone dead. That’s bad luck. I had more good luck than bad, so I’ll take it.
Q: As you explain to the viewers near the end of the film, I encouraged you to try a high-fat, very low-carb diet to see what would happen with your lipids. You went on what you called a “saturated-fat pigout” for a month, and your total cholesterol went down and your HDL went up, as I predicted. But you didn’t mention what happened with your weight during that month. Did you gain or lose?
A: Yes, after our first interview, you told me off-camera that I could prove to myself that the Lipid Hypothesis was wrong, and I did, to my great relief. To tell you the truth, I was kind of sweating it out, waiting for the lab results to come back. I believed what you were telling me, but after a month of eating burgers and steaks and bacon and eggs, there was part of me wondering if I was going to get back a lipid panel that would just say “You’re going to die” across the top. If my cholesterol numbers had gone all out of whack, it wouldn’t have done very much for the premise of my film. But as you predicted, the numbers all improved.
To answer your question, I lost two pounds during that month. That doesn’t sound like much, but I was eating a lot of high-fat, high-calorie food, and I wasn’t exercising much because I was swamped with work, so the fact that I lost any weight at all impressed me.
Q: So it wasn’t just a matter of counting calories.
A: It couldn’t be just about the calories. If you go by the simple calories-in, calories-out equation the so-called experts are always harping on about, I should’ve gained weight during that month.
I kind of repeated that experiment again later. I was booked on a cruise ship for five weeks as a comedian, and of course cruises are notorious for being diet-busters. So during those five weeks, I ate burgers, steaks, bacon, sausage, eggs, seafood and salads with bleu cheese dressing. I didn’t touch bread or potatoes or rice. I limited my alcohol consumption to a little red wine here and there. Since the performers work at night, on a lot of days I had a fourth meal after midnight. There’s no way this was a low-calorie diet in disguise, as some of the low-carb critics like to claim. At the end of the five weeks, I weighed exactly the same. Calories in versus calories out can’t explain that result.
Q: How did working on this film change your own dietary habits?
A: I used to more or less limit my carbs, but I also granted myself a lot of “special occasion” days where I had the bagel, or the lasagna, or the chicken-fried steak. After all the books and articles I read for this film, and especially after reading Good Calories, Bad Calories, I’m a lot stricter, and frankly, it’s easier to pass up those foods. If I look at a baked potato, I see a big glob of sugar sitting there.
I also don’t worry about saturated fats and cholesterol at all. In fact, I believe they’re good for me. I’ve noticed that when the flu goes around, or when practically everybody I know has a cold, I pretty much never come down with anything. Maybe it’s just a placebo effect, but I truly believe the butter and the coconut oil and the egg yolks and the beef fat I consume keep my immune system strong.
Q: What kind of reactions are you getting from people who’ve seen the film?
A: That’s what is really gratifying, seeing how this film affects other people. My composer swore off sugar and starch after working on the film, and he lost 15 pounds. Same thing happened with my sound engineer. He realized his morning bowl of whole-grain cereal wasn’t actually good for him, and he switched back to eating meat and eggs for the first time in decades. He lost 15 pounds, which is great, but even more importantly, he was able to stop taking Prilosec. He’d been taking that stuff every day for years. All of his digestive disorders are gone, and he feels healthy. At our premiere party, he told me this film had literally changed his life.
Q: So what’s happening with the film now? What’s next?
A: Now it’s up to the distributors. The U.S. distributor is getting the film into the big video stores and department stores, and it’s already selling on Amazon. The international distributor is selling to the DVD and TV markets in a couple dozen countries. It turned out the world-wide premiere was on a satellite network in Israel back in December. I started getting all these emails from people in Israel, asking me questions about the film, or just wanting to know when they could buy it on DVD.
Q: Any plans for a follow-up film, or a film on a different topic?
A: I have some ideas for future projects, but no concrete plans yet. I bankrolled Fat Head myself, so first I have to wait and see if it generates a healthy profit. If it does, I’ll definitely make another film. This project took an incredible amount of work, way more work than I thought it would be when I started it, but at the same time, it was a blast. Other than being on stage doing standup comedy, this is about as much fun as I’ve ever had while working.
Thanks very much, Tom.
Tom has generously agreed to answer any questions any of you might have about his film, so fire away in the comments section, and I’ll get them to Tom.