Super Size Me is a lively and accessible account of director Morgan Spurlock’s attempt to spend 30 days eating nothing but McDonald’s food—for breakfast, lunch and dinner—while doctors monitor the changes in his vital statistics. It’s an increasingly important topic. As a society, we’ve built a machine that saves us dollars at the cash register but requires us to pay them back in health bills down the road.
The movie accomplishes some of its more modest goals: it makes fast food look disgusting, makes the serving sizes seem outrageous and, perhaps most importantly, makes the food programs at many schools seem alarmingly poor at both providing nutritious meals and developing healthy eating habits. But when it begins to feel more like a publicity stunt than an object lesson, the movie earns less attention. Spurlock, who is already talking about plans to parlay the movie’s momentum into a reality series for a cable network, has developed three rules for his 30-day binge: he can only eat or drink what’s available at McDonald’s, he can only choose the “super size” option if the cashier offers it to him, and he must eat every item on the menu at least once during the 30 days.
Looking at these rules, it’s hard to see what the goal of the stunt is. Is it to magnify the average customer’s diet, to speed it along like time-lapse photography? The second rule provides a hint. From the outset Spurlock intends to stuff himself, and he does. Once he’s off and running, it’s not clear why he ignores his nutritionist who says that his fast food diet is giving him about 5000 calories per day when he only needs 2500. Twice she suggests cutting out the shakes and the sodas, and yet he continues eating shakes and drinking sodas to the end. Whether his goal is to approximate the average visit to McDonald’s or ensure results for his movie project isn’t clear.
As a counterpoint, it would be interesting to see what would happen to someone who tried to eat healthy at McDonald’s, a notion Spurlock doesn’t bother to entertain. You could choose low-fat options, but it would be impossible to get enough vegetables and fiber, and the low-fat meal would be incredibly bland, the product of a system that has worked to optimize food delivery and consistency and, in doing so, has invented foods so devoid of flavor that they require dressings, oils, beef tallow and goopy coatings to make them more than just textured blobs. The industry has worked hard to convince consumers that these odd, sweet flavors are not only good but also unique, recognizable parts of a brand.
Spurlock doesn’t attempt to convey this message, presumably because the affects of too few vegetables and too little fiber aren’t as dramatic as speedy weight-and-cholesterol gains. Since the film’s premiere at Sundance, he has modified its closing titles to take credit for McDonald’s recent decision to eliminate the “super sized” option from its menu. While McDonald’s is surely aware of and responding to the negative publicity generated by the movie—and while the holy grail of many a documentarian is to affect change in the institution he or she critiques—Spurlock is riding a wave rather than creating one. If any one media project deserves credit for opening the public’s eyes to the food supply’s systemic problems, it’s Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, published in January 2002.
Super Size Me cloaks itself in science, dispensing statistics at a rapid clip and parading three doctors and a nutritionist before the camera. What the experts say seems credible, but once again, they’re just the ribs jutting from the spine of a 30-day binge, an exploit Spurlock would probably admit isn’t remotely scientific, even though his primary justification for the project is to “prove” what a recent court case involving two overweight teens was unable to: that fast food causes obesity and health problems. And yet he has an extremely small sample size (one), has no control group, records observations from people who have preconceived notions (his girlfriend and himself), and presents anecdotes from school lunchrooms as if they tell us something about the system as a whole.
I’m loath to side with McDonald’s—I’d have trouble getting through a single day, let alone thirty—and I’m willing to believe Spurlock’s hypothesis is true and that he’s bringing attention to an important problem, but someday I’d like to see a well-researched documentary as lively as this one on the harmful effects of pseudo-science in the media, how the ignorance of, or willful distortion of, basic scientific methods is used to manipulate public opinion, or at least further a filmmaker’s career at the expense of truth. Super Size Me might not be on the poster of such a documentary, but in its attempts to convince us that it’s proving anything at all, it certainly could be an exhibit.