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The film “Super Size Me” is a 2004 part documentary film, part health experiment directed by and featuring American Indie filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock. In the film, he records the effects of a 30-day period of time (Feb. 1 – March 2, 2003) in which he ate only McDonald’s food. In the process of documenting the results of the “McDonald’s diet” or “McDiet” upon the director’s physical and psychological health, Spurlock is both surprised and appalled as he discovers not only the detrimental effects of the fast food giant’s products upon himself but also the vast influence that the fast food industry has over the lives of it’s customers---including how it promotes poor nutrition for the sake of profit. Spurlock initiates this documentary as a response to the “epidemic of obesity” as declared by the US Surgeon General as well a careful study on his opinion that fast food franchises, much like tobacco companies, fail to properly label and categorize their products as they are both physiologically addictive and physically harmful---in much the same way as cigarettes are.
During the start of the movie, Spurlock subjects himself for evaluation by a team of professionals, including a personal trainer, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, nutritionist, and a general practitioner. This is done to establish his physical condition and to provide them with a baseline “before” measurement. The teams give their inputs and unanimously agree that Spurlock is in above average shape and in generally good health for a man measuring 6’2 weighing 185 lbs. They also predict that the “diet” would have some detrimental effects, such as weight gain at worst, but nothing too dangerous, stating that the human body would cope well as it is “extremely adaptable.”
The experiment would be carried out with the following guidelines:
1. All three main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and all food to be eaten must come from McDonald’s only.
2. Every menu item at McDonald’s must be eaten at least once over the course of 30 days.
3. He must SUPER SIZE MEALS only when offered by McDonald’s staff and if offered the option he must always take it.
4. He will must not engage in any exercise beyond that which the typical US citizen engages in, pegged at approximately 5,000 standardized distance steps per day.
The experiment officially began on February 1, and on the second day of the experiment Spurlock was offered the first of a total of nine super sized meals. He is given a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Super Size French Fries and a 42-ounce soft drink. Unaccustomed to eating that much food in one go, he undergoes stomach pains then proceeds to throw up in the parking lot. In five days Spurlock manages to gain a total of 9.5 lbs. and begins to experience sluggishness, headaches and depression. Eating a McDonald’s meal, the director claims, could relieve these symptoms and at this point one of his doctors described him as addicted as he was showing physiological signs very similar to substance dependence.
Upon his second weigh-in Spurlock had gained another 8 lbs. and by his last weigh-in he was a total of 210 lbs. from his previous weights of 185 lbs.---an astonishing 25 lbs.---in a mere 30 days.
His girlfriend, vegan gourmet chef Alexandra Jamieson, reports that he had been extremely lethargic during the later parts of the experiment, noting a particularly pronounced decrease in his sex drive, and he even began to experience heart palpitations on day 21 of the "McDiet." Spurlock successfully completes the 30 experiment, faithfully adhering to the conditions set. He then promptly goes though a battery of medical exams to fully evaluate his health. The medical team was extremely shocked at how quickly and drastically Spurlock’s overall health worsened. Most especially since they initially made predictions that the 30-day McDonald’s diet wouldn’t have any major, negative impact upon his health.
He then begins a detox-recovery program and reports state that it took a total of 14 months to gradually lose the 25 lbs. that he had gained in one month. The film ends with a question directed to the viewers: “Who do you want to see go first, you or them?” simultaneously showing an editorial cartoon featuring a headstone of Ronald McDonald. This mirrors the first time this cartoon was used when it was featured first in an article in The Economist magazine in an issue tackling the morality of turning children into a primary market demographic. A brief coda is added to the film detailing how McDonald’s has discontinued the super sizing of their meals six weeks after the film’s release as well as in the inclusion of healthier menu offerings and a market campaign featuring a more active, sporty Ronald McDonald. McDonald’s has refuted claims that these actions were carried out as a response to the film.
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I say this having eaten irresponsibly at McDonald's since I was in grade school, and one of the very first McDonald's outlets in the nation opened in Urbana. Hamburgers were 15 cents, fries were a dime. Make it two burgers, and we considered that a meal. Today it is possible to ingest thousands of calories at McDonald's, and zoom dangerously over your daily recommended limits of fat, sugar and salt. I know because Morgan Spurlock proves it in "Super Size Me."
This is the documentary that caused a sensation at Sundance 2004 and allegedly inspired McDonald's to discontinue its "super size" promotions as a preemptive measure. In it, Spurlock vows to eat three meals a day at McDonald's for one month. He is examined by three doctors at the beginning of the month and found to be in good health. They check him again regularly during the filming, as his weight balloons 30 pounds, his blood pressure skyrockets, his cholesterol goes up 65 points, he has symptoms of toxic shock to his liver, his skin begins to look unhealthy, his energy drops, he has chest pains, and his girlfriend complains about their sex life. At one point his doctors advise him to abandon McDonald's before he does permanent damage. The doctors say they have seen similar side-effects from binge drinkers, but never dreamed you could get that way just by eating fast food.
It's amazing, what you find on the menu at McDonald's. Let's say you start the day with a sausage and egg McMuffin. You'll get 10 grams of saturated fat -- 50 percent of your daily recommendation, not to mention 39 percent of your daily sodium intake. Add a Big Mac and medium fries for lunch, and you're up to 123 percent of your daily sat fat recommendation, and 96 percent of your sodium. For dinner, choose a Quarter Pounder with cheese, add another medium order of fries, and you're at 206 percent of daily sat. fat and 160 percent of sodium. At some point add a strawberry shake to take you to 247 percent of sat. fat and 166 percent of sodium. And then remember that most nutritionists recommend less fat and salt than the government guidelines.
There is a revisionist interpretation of the film, in which Spurlock is identified as a self-promoter who on behalf of his film ate more than any reasonable person could consume in a month at McDonald's. That is both true and not true. He does have a policy that whenever he's asked if he wants to "super size it," he must reply "yes." But what he orders for any given meal is not uncommon, and we have all known (or been) customers who ordered the same items. That anyone would do it three times a day is unlikely. Occasionally you might want to go upscale at someplace like Outback, where the Bloomin' Onion Rings all by themselves provide more than a day's worth of fat and sodium, and 1,600 calories. Of course they're supposed to be shared. For best results, share them with everyone else in the restaurant.
Of course we bear responsibility for our own actions, so . . . is it possible to go to McDonald's and order a healthy meal? This week a Chicago nutritionist told a Sun-Times reporter that of course Spurlock put on weight, because he was eating 5,000 calories a day. She suggested a McDonald's three-meal menu that would not be fattening, but as I studied it, I wondered: How many customers consider a small hamburger, small fries and a Diet Coke as their dinner? When was the last time you even ordered a small hamburger (that's not a Quarter Pounder) at McDonald's? Don't all raise your hands at once.
Oh, I agree with the nutritionist that her recommended three meals would not add weight; her daily caloric intake totaled 1,460 calories, which is a little low for a child under 4, according to the USDA. But even her menu would include 54 grams of fat (15 saturated), or about one third of calories (for best heart health, fat should be down around 20 percent). And her diet included an astonishing 3,385 mgs of sodium (daily recommendation: 1,600 to 2,400 mgs). My conclusion: Even the nutritionist's bare-bones 1,460-calorie McDonald's menu is dangerous to your health.
I approached "Super Size Me" in a very particular frame of mind, because in December 2002, after years of fooling around, I began seriously following the Pritikin program of nutrition and exercise, and have lost about 86 pounds. Full disclosure: Fifteen of those pounds were probably lost as a side effect of surgery and radiation; the others can be accounted for by Pritikin menus and exercise (the 10,000 Step-a-Day Program plus weights two or three times a week). So of course that makes me a True Believer.
You didn't ask, but what I Truly Believe is that unless you can find an eating program you can stay on for the rest of your life, dieting is a waste of time. The pounds come back. Instead of extreme high-protein or low-carb diets with all their health risks, why not exercise more, avoid refined foods and eat a balanced diet of fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish and a little meat, beans, soy products, low-fat dairy, low fat, low salt? Of course I agree with McDonald's that a visit to Mickey D's can be part of a responsible nutritional approach. That's why I've dined there twice in the last 17 months.