About a hundred years ago, the United States government decided that it needed to get involved in regulating the food processing industry and created what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration. It was a radical idea at the time and there were a few who grouched that it was an impediment to free enterprise and the American way, but the publication of Upton Sinclair’s expose, The Jungle, in which such unsanitary practices as processing line workers who fell into vats into tins of pork products alarmed the public as nothing until then had done. Not patent medicines that failed to live up to any of their claims, not botulism in the canned peaches. In that spirit and, I hope, that reaction, come SUPER SIZE ME, Morgan Spurlocks hysterically funny and deeply troubling documentary about fast food and the national waistline.
Theres no cannibalism here, but from a nutritional standpoint, as distinct from ethical or philosophical ones, what Spurlock discovers is just as disturbing. Knowing that fast food is not the ideal diet, he decided to try a radical experiment to see just how bad the typical menu items can be. The ground rules he set for himself were that for 30 days he would eat only food served over the counter at McDonalds. He had to try everything on the menu at least once. In order to have data for comparison, he consulted doctors and nutritionists before beginning who pronounce him to be in exceptionally good shape. It took only one week for all that to change dramatically. His physical decline was to be expected, but the mood swings are a surprise. His nutritionist advised him what foods make the best of a bad situation, more iced tea, she suggest, fewer shakes (note that theyre not called MILKshakes). Spurlock, though, does what the American public at large does. He ignores her.
Sure, Spurlock could have chosen to eat only the salads (without the sugary dressing) and iced tea, but he was making a point about how the choices that the average American makes, which is why he also eschewed exercise of any kind, even walking when he could grab a cab. By making this literally death-defying leap into the dietary abyss, he experiences in 30 days the cumulative effects of eating the amount of burgers, fries, and shakes that John or Jane Q Public would down in the course of a decade or so.
There is some very graphic footage here that hammers home exactly what this stuff does to the human body. Theres the time-lapse photography of the 25 minutes that is takes Spurlock to down a double-cheeseburger value meal, where his running commentary goes from junk food bliss to a queasiness that does not bode well for what will next appear on screen. For a fast forward to where this can all lead, theres the surgical close-ups of a stomach stapling procedure, which the staplee describes as his last resort before diabetes, heart disease and a host of other ailments takes him out for good.
The point is not that McDonalds food is so bad, I doubt anyone thinks of it as food that would lead to a slimmer, trimmer physique, but rather, that the insidiousness of the very real toxicity is kept from the public, buried beneath the catchy jingles and the subliminal programming designed to hook kids for life. One telling sequence has Spurlock trying to find out the nutritional information for whats on the menu, the calories, fats, sodium content, et als. For the most part, its AWOL, forcing Spurlock to ask a succession of counter staff and managers who reply for the most part with a blank look. One helpful manager does succeed in finding a nutritional wall chart in his basement, tucked away behind some boxes.
For all the facts, figures, and orgy of fat and salt that are thrown at us in its running time, the most telling, and most terrifying, is the reaction of Spurlocks internist. Hes Dr. Isaacs, a rumpled man who monitors Spurlocks physical and emotional decline with a mixture of awe and fear, growing progressively more agitated and, perhaps, even more rumpled, as tests come back showing alarming changes in Spurlocks cholesterol, blood chemistry, and liver. Its that latter that pushes Isaacs over the edge when, looking at the report, he explains to Spurlock and the camera, that what hes seeing are the results he would expect of a man who has spent the last 30 days downing vast quantities of hard liquor. There is a genuine fear in his eyes when Spurlock reports chest pains and Isaacs asks him to at least take an aspirin every day, to which Spurlock replies that he cant because it isnt on the McDonalds menu. And if that doesnt make you want to change your ways, the description by Spurlocks girlfriend, the vegan chef, of what has become of their sex life just might do the trick.
Spurlock’s an intelligent guy with a wicked sense of humor and a deft sense of how to get a point across so that it resonates with more than just the funny bone. The ironic tone he strikes does nothing to mollify the message of the film–that we’re at the mercy of a food industry overwhelmingly interested in profits, not nutrition. In fact, it underscores it in a way that a litany of facts just couldnt. The question becomes, how did a society, not just its government, but its industry and its citizens abrogate so thoroughly the responsibility to respect the welfare of its people. How did it happen that fast food is served in schools and that parents stopped caring if their kids got enough exercise, and why isnt it headline news every day? SUPER SIZE ME! doesnt let the individual off the hook, but it does take deadly and accurate aim at the root causes of why obesity will be the defining health issue of our time, no matter where you dine.