Fast-Food Lovers, Unite!

Big Macs. Nacho-cheese Chalupas. Subway subs. Rob Borucki adores them all. The 37-year-old indulges in fast-food fare at least five times a week. A really good day for Borucki? When Wienerschnitzel, a West Coast hot-dog chain he grew up with, recently opened just a few blocks from his Tempe, Ariz., office and he got to commune with his fellow sausage enthusiasts. "I was so excited," says the Internet project manager, who runs a fast-food fan Web site. "And so was everyone there."

In fast-food parlance, Borucki is called a "heavy user," even though he is quite slender. Loosely defined as the 20 percent of fast-food eaters who account for 60 percent of all fast-food sales, a typical heavy user is male, in his 20s or 30s and extremely loyal to the burgers and fries he loves. And while heavies as a group have never been accused of being heart smart or even a little health-conscious, lately they're feeling under siege as the fast-food chains that are their de facto kitchens have come under attack. Obese diners are suing companies like McDonald's for allegedly contributing to their weight problems. And the endless flood of studies detailing the horrors of obesity provide plenty of ammo for the naggy types who want heavy users to change their ways.

Then there's "Super Size Me," a documentary released this month that follows a filmmaker as he eats only McDonald's food for 30 days, gains 25 pounds and watches his cholesterol skyrocket to 230 from 160. Morgan Spurlock, the movie's director and subject, has said he hopes his film will help fast-food fetishists save themselves.

But heavy users like Borucki insist they don't need saving, protesting that they are far from the clueless fatties anti-fast-food activists make them out to be. Even the heaviest users "would have to be stupid not to know that you can't eat only burgers and fries and not exercise," he says. For his part, Borucki is a moderate exerciser--he runs and rides his bike--but not every day. And he'll occasionally substitute a side salad for his regular fries. Indeed, in a recent study of restaurantgoers by the research firm Technomic, 90 percent said they had concerns about obesity, and 50 percent said they'd changed their eating habits in the past year as a result. Fast-food companies have noticed. You can give your waistline a break today with a McDonald's fruit-and-walnut salad or skip the flame-broiled meat and have a Burger King Fire-Grilled salad with shrimp instead. The healthy approach is working: after years of declining sales growth, fast food is making a comeback. Sales grew a meager 2.6 percent in 2003, but are expected to increase by as much as 4 percent this year.

Heavy users are adapting--in their own way. They're eating Chicken Whoppers as well as the real thing and cutting back on anything that has the word "fried" in its name. And while much has been made of McDonald's dropping its Super Size portions after Spurlock's film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this winter, the company says it did so because customers, including heavy users, stopped ordering the gargantuan servings. Still, Ronald knows enough not to alienate his best customers. "The Quarter Pounder with Cheese or the Big Mac--those items will not be touched," says Technomic's Dennis Lombardi.

Jeremy Hageman can take some comfort in that. The 26-year-old Web designer hits the gym three times a week so that he can indulge in as much fast food as he craves. "I like things that taste good," Hageman says. He felt slightly guilty about his eating habits after hearing about Spurlock's movie. Then he came up with a plan befitting a heavy user: eat more Taco Bell. "For some reason," he says, "it doesn't seem as bad." Must be all that shredded lettuce.