March 4, 2011 -- Blair River, the 575-pound spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill, an Arizona restaurant that serves shamelessly high-calorie burgers and fries, died Tuesday at the age of 29, following a bout of the flu.
At 6 feet 8 inches tall, River garnered celebrity as the grill's "Gentle Giant" when he became the face and advertising star of the medically themed restaurant -- famous for its triple-bypass burgers, flatliner lard fries and server "nurses" donning uniforms fit for adult films.
River came down with the flu last week, and after four days in the hospital, he succumbed to pneumonia, says Jon Basso, owner of the grill and close friend of River .Basso described River's death as "tragic," because he was a "young creative genius, a promising man whose life got cut short because he carried extra weight. Had he been thin, he would have had a tenfold opportunity to survive the pneumonia."
Though Basso goes by "Dr. Jon," in line with the restaurant's medical theme, he is not medically trained and so can't speak to the role obesity might have played in River's illness. The official cause of death for the hamburger model is still unknown.
Medical professionals wouldn't necessarily disagree with this link, however.
"Obesity increases your risk for just about every condition, and it can make nearly every acute health problem worse," says Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Extreme Obesity and Flu Risk
Those who are morbidly obese have an increased risk for sudden cardiac death and heart attacks at a younger age, says Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute. "All of this could be worsened with a flu or other respiratory illness.
And research during the H1N1 swine flue epidemic of 2009 suggested that extreme obesity did complicate recovery in flu patients. One study, published in the journal PloS One, found that among those requiring inpatient care for the flu, those with a body mass index of 40 or higher were almost three times more likely to die than those of normal body mass index.
While conditions associated with obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes, have been linked in the past to increased risk of flu complications, this study was the first to find that independent of any other health problems, obesity itself was increasing the risk of death for flu patients.
Heart Attack Grill -- Serving Food for Thought?
It is impossible to say whether River's weight was a factor in his death from pneumonia, but Ayoob says that it's a matter of adjusting the risk when dealing with obese patients:
"Obesity doesn't guarantee something bad is going to happen to you, but it increases the risk that it will. He was almost three times his ideal weight -- you are really playing Russian roulette there," Ayoob says.
Basso is very open about the controversial position he puts himself in by marketing unhealthy food "worth dying for," as the restaurant slogan goes.
"I hired him to promote my food. We are absolutely guilty of glorifying obesity. That's what I do for a living: I make a mockery of heart-related issues in order to sell hamburgers," says Basso.
But nothing will change in the Heart Attack Grill's approach now that River has died, Basso says.
Basso likes to believe that his outlandish promotion of obesity serves as "food for thought" for some. For instance, those who weigh in at more than 350 pounds at the restaurant eat for free -- a marketing gimmick that River came up with himself.
"They come in, stand on the scale in front of everyone. We cheer and throw a big mumu over them and then they eat as much as they like for free. That shocks people, and hopefully, some people on those scales go home and say, that was fun at the time, but I really need to do something about this," Basso says.
Before owning the grill, Basso owned a Jenny Craig franchise and a fitness center, and says that despite pouring "his heart and soul into the diet and exercise industry," he didn't feel like he was reaching anyone. "I'm making more inroads now into people's consciousness by working the other side," he says.
Burgers and Fries, Side of Social Commentary
At the same time, Basso is providing the kind of food that epitomizes the unhealthy fast-food American diet, and he makes his living doing it.
"The Heart Attack Grill can be viewed as absolutely evil. Each person takes it differently. I genuinely hope that people continue to eat in a sinful way, but moderately. I don't want to see everyone come into my restaurant every day," he says. "It's a once a week, cheat day thing."