By now, you’ve probably seen an infographic that purports to describe what happens to your body during the hour after you eat a Big Mac. If not, here it is. And it’s got all the hallmarks of a #shareable piece of #content… right down to a total lack of footnotes on the infographic itself.
First off, let’s look at the Big Mac. McDonald’s makes its nutritional information a pain in the ass to access, but you can find it on the second page, second row of this PDF. And right off the bat, we can see this infographic is correct that a Big Mac has 540 calories and is a high-fat meal. I know the latter is shocking, but let’s move on.
With all that in mind, decided to further examine this viral sensation. So let’s take this puppy apart and see if it makes any sense.
10 Minutes In
The first eyebrow-raiser is the claim that, within 10 minutes, it raises your blood sugar to “abnormal levels.” The first problem with this is that they don’t specify what those “abnormal levels” are. Nonetheless, it is true that you’ll give your system a pretty big dose of stuff to break down and that until your body cranks out insulin to deal with it, it’s going to be in your system. What they’re leaving out here is that this is called “temporary hyperglycemia,” and unless you have diabetes, you probably won’t notice. And that’s not the only error: It’s been found that hyperglycemia happens several hours after a high fat meal, not minutes.
They then compare it to getting high on cocaine, because both release dopamine. Dopamine is, among other things, a reward reinforcer; you also get a dopamine response from excessive exercise and from having sex. Notice they didn’t compare Big Macs to orgasms.
20 Minutes In
They note that a Big Mac has a lot of sodium and high fructose corn syrup. This is true! They also claim both elements are “addictive.” First of all, sodium is “addictive” in the same way water and air is: It’s a crucial building block of life, although 970 milligrams in one meal is not a good thing. Or maybe it is: Doctors are still arguing over how much salt is enough salt.
As for the addictive properties of high fructose corn syrup, that’s at best a big ol’ maybe. It’s likely a contributing factor to overeating, but we don’t have any human research.
30 Minutes In
Hey, remember that whole “sodium is crucial to life” detail this infographic left out? Get ready for a sodium attack!
First of all, they claim the high amount of salt dehydrates you. This is true insofar as it goes, but it’s a bit more complicated than they’re making it sound. For example, if you’ve been sweating a lot, like, say, being outside in summer, your body will want a little salt in your water. They also claim that many people mistake thirst for hunger so they want to eat more; if there was scientific proof of this claim, I haven’t found it, but it’s not going to kill you to have a glass of water and wait before you eat, so let’s file that under sleeping dogs.
And now let’s talk about kidneys. This infographic claims kidneys can’t “excrete salt.” Which is true! They can’t! Because kidneys do not work that way! Kidneys remove excess water from your blood, which a high sodium level can disrupt. Essentially, they are arguing that eating a Big Mac prevents kidney stones.
They then proceed to lay out the basics of why high blood pressure is bad for you, while failing to note that the issue isn’t so much putting a temporary strain on your body as it is a consistent, long-term strain. Simply put, yes, heavy salt consumption can raise your blood pressure, but it’s consistently high blood pressure you need to worry about, and that’s not a problem you can solve just by changing your lunch.
40 Minutes In
Aaaand you’re hungry again, according to this. They get the mechanism right, at least; your body overproduces insulin to deal with the calorie bomb you ate and it’s left in your bloodstream with no glucose to tackle. So your body prods you to give it something to get this insulin out of your system before it starts wrecking the joint. It’s just the timing is wrong; generally this is a few hours later, not 40 minutes.
60 Minutes In
There’s more weasel words in this part of the infographic than a politician’s stump speech. First of all, this section opens by noting it generally takes 24 to 72 hours to digest food. And then it says it can take “more than three days” to “fully digest” a Big Mac. Okay, how much more? And what’s “fully digest?” Is it because of the trans fatty acids?
By the way, they’re right, trans fatty acids are bad for you… which is why they were banned by the FDA this year after a preliminary ban in 2013 and why McDonald’s has been trying to get rid of them. As for the claim that it takes 51 days to digest trans fatty acids, I can’t find any reliable data, but I’d take that one with a grain of salt.
It’s Not Wrong, But It’s Wrong
Let’s just get this out of the way for the health warrior reading this while angrily CrossFitting: No, fast food is not good for you when you eat it consistently. But everybody knows this. This isn’t some sort of magical new form of knowledge.
My problem with this infographic is that for us to improve our health, we need to understand, clearly, how our bodies work and how they process the food we eat. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to get informed, but passing off conventional wisdom as fact and making technical mistakes doesn’t help. Informing the public needs to be done right, or it’s just adding to the problem.