Release Date:  May 21, 2004 – limited markets
Genre:  Documentary – not rated
Run Time: 96 minutes
Director:  Morgan Spurlock
Writing Credits:  Morgan Spurlock

I screened this movie right before a long car trip, and I was so revolted that I went out of my way to avoid fast food. “Super Size Me” isn’t a thriller, but it sure terrified me. And just between us, that’s a good thing.

After reading the counter claims to the well-publicized obesity lawsuits filed against McDonald’s, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decided to try an experiment. While being closely monitored by a dietician, a physical trainer and three doctors, Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. His rules for the experiment were that he could eat salads and other “healthy food,” but he had to eat everything, at least once, on the menu. If a particular store had a unique item, he had to try that, too. Spurlock also had to “super size” his order, if asked (which happened just five times). During the month, he exercised no more or no less than the average American (two miles of walking per day) and engaged in regular checkups.

The results, which ultimately caused McDonald’s to discontinue its “super size” promotion – and led to other fast-food companies adding healthy alternatives to their menus – were worse that anyone could have predicted. In 30 days, Spurlock gained 25 pounds.  He increased his body fat by 18 percent. He also doubled his risks of heart attack and heart disease and jeopardized the health of his liver, which one doctor called “obscene, beyond anything I would have ever predicted.” After the experiment, it took the normally-fit Spurlock nine months to lose the first 20 pounds he had gained, and another five months to lose the remaining five pounds. With a strict “detox” diet, his health slowly returned to normal.

Although the documentary does not credit the source, “Super Size Me” was clearly influenced by the 2001 New York Times bestseller, “Fast Food Nation” by journalist Eric Schlosser. In this hard-hitting exposé, Schlosser skewered the fast-food industry (paticularly McDonald’s, as its leading restaurant) for dietary and corporate short cuts that have impoverished workers and jeopardized the health of customers while addicting millions to the speed, efficiency and carbohydrate high of grease- and sugar-filled products.

Like Schlosser, Spurlock clearly has an agenda – to expose the fast-food industry’s claims of providing “healthy” food as a lie and to sound a wake-up call to Americans who use fast food as meals. He is biased, like when he connects the attorney who sued the tobacco industry with the one who sued McDonald’s. But it’s hard not to sympathize once Spurlock starts reeling off facts, not the least of which include dozens of failed attempts to speak with McDonald’s executives. Spurlock also explores the addictive nature of fast food and some of the mechanisms behind the large-scale corporate machine – like billion-dollar budgets for lobbying Congress (for more favorable laws) and a mass-market advertising blitz aimed at children.

This last point is particularly concerning. Not only does McDonald’s flood the television market with ads aimed at children (especially during key times, like Saturday mornings), but they also use playgrounds, Happy Meals and characters like Ronald McDonald to make the restaurant the place where kids want to spend time – lots of time. Eating there is habit-forming (especially if people are unaware of the dangers), but also, children who have happy childhood memories at McDonald’s, while eating and playing on the playground next to their parents, are far more likely to recreate those memories by going to the restaurant as adults. It’s good marketing that generates generations of future customers, but those same customers are growing more obese and less healthy with each passing year. Additionally, Spurlock investigated the way that fast food has infiltrated the school system, where it is the primary source of “nutrition” for millions of kids eating in cafeterias.