The Golden Arches seemed incapable of losing their fast-food shine. But the success of the McDonald's documentary Super Size Me took away some of the gloss - perhaps unfairly. The 2004 film earned over $11 million at the domestic box office, an astronomical sum for a nonfiction film. Whereas most documentaries are relegated to art houses, this one captured the interest of the nation at large, thanks to its intriguing premise: Director Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food, three times a day, for a month, keeping track of its effects on his health and mood in the process. He received an Oscar nomination for his efforts.
Time was not entirely kind to the movie, though. Super Size Me became controversial as claims about its veracity emerged. Some argued that it was biased or contained manipulated information. Others said Spurlock's point was automatically invalidated, because no one eats McDonald's at every meal. Still others pointed out that Spurlock asked viewers to simply take his word about how he felt in the midst of all this unhealthy eating.
Whatever you think of the film, the following Super Size Me facts will help put this entertaining, if problematic, documentary into perspective.
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Spurlock Lied About His Alcohol Consumption
At one point in the film, Spurlock gets some startling news from his doctor: He has liver damage. The physician tells him fast food is “pickling" his liver,” and that his liver looks like “an alcoholic's after a binge.” The suggestion that fast food could be harmful to your liver is one of Super Size Me's more eye-opening moments.
But the filmmaker left out an important detail that puts this diagnosis in a different light. Spurlock claims to be in good health at the beginning of the movie, and denies alcohol use to his doctor in his initial checkup. But in a 2017 social media post addressing sexual harassment allegations made against him, Spurlock wrote that he had been “consistently drinking since the age of 13” and “[hadn't] been sober for more than a week in 30 years.”
As the Wall Street Journal surmised, excessive drinking would likely explain the liver damage far more than McDonald's food would. The WSJ also indicated that the physical shakes Spurlock experienced might have been a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. Taken together, these factors suggest that Spurlock's problem drinking was responsible for some of his health problems.
- Photo: Fat Head / Morningstar Entertainment2247 VOTES
The Documentary 'Fat Head' Mocks and Challenges 'Super Size Me'
The breakout success and cultural impact of Super Size Me was so great that there was no way it could escape mockery. Perhaps the most notable example came from comedian and former health writer Tom Naughton, who made the documentary Fat Head specifically to challenge Morgan Spurlock's film.
The premise of this 2009 movie is clever. Naughton sets out to lose weight on a fast-food diet. His diet in the film is 50% fat intake, but he strategically plans his meals. In the process, he attempts to not only mock Spurlock, but also to correct what he sees as inaccurate information. Naughton described the results of his experiment:
My blood pressure stayed the same, I lost weight and body fat, and my cholesterol dropped a bit. The only negative effect was that my HDL ["good" cholesterol] dropped too. That's not from the saturated fat, however. That was the result of eating foods fried in trans fats, which were supposed to be the "safe" alternative to saturated fats. When I tried another diet experiment later, living on very high amounts of saturated fat with no trans fats, my HDL shot up higher than ever. I also felt great.
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No One Has Replicated Morgan Spurlock’s Results
Morgan Spurlock's claims in Super Size Me are shocking, to say the least. In the film, he asserts that he consumes approximately 5,000 calories per day. This, in turn, causes him to gain a whopping 25 pounds in just one month. He also says his cholesterol spikes through the roof and that he becomes depressed as a result of this downturn in his health. The implication, which Spurlock takes pains to underline on screen, is that fast food is extremely detrimental to eat regularly.
The problem with these claims is that no one has been able to replicate them. At the University of Linköping in Sweden, a group of researchers tried their hardest. They recruited seven healthy medical students in their early 20s to spend a month gorging on hamburgers, french fries, pizza, and other “fast foods.” Their results were notably different. Weight gain and decreased energy were common, yet none of the test subjects reported feeling depression. Similarly, their livers were not impacted the way Spurlock's allegedly was. Cholesterol levels, meanwhile, were largely unchanged in that short period of time.
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McDonald's Took Out Newspaper Ads Refuting The Film
The McDonald's company realized it had a PR disaster on its hands when the movie became a cause célèbre in America, with the public and media talking about the potential unhealthiness of its product. McDonald's decided to be proactive for the pending overseas release. The fast-food giant took out ads in Britian's biggest newspapers refuting the documentary and its assertions.
Interestingly, those ads acknowledged Super Size Me did have some merit. “What may surprise you is how much of the film we agree with," the ads began. They made a point of agreeing with “its core argument, that if you eat too much and do too little, it's bad for you.” But they went on to say that Spurlock eats the amount of McDonald's food in one month that it would take an average customer six years to consume, rendering it an inaccurate portrait of a typical patron.
When asked about the ads by The Guardian, a spokeswoman said, "We wanted to ensure there is a balanced debate so people hear our side of the story."
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Spurlock Blames McDonald’s Instead Of His Own Poor Decisions
One of the most frequent criticisms of Super Size Me is Spurlock's decision to avoid discussing the role personal responsibility played in his results. For example, as the Citizens Council for Health Freedom said in a public statement, “Personal responsibility, portion sizes, and exercise are never discussed in the film.” That's a significant point, as Spurlock intentionally circumvented these things. He never sought to limit his intake at any given meal, and studiously avoided the kind of exercise that might have mitigated his weight gain.
To that specific point, the CCHF poignantly added that declining to exercise is “something not under control of any fast-food restaurant.” The organization further observed that Spurlock “gorges himself” in the film, having “two drinks at a time and at least four cream containers for his coffee."
Of particular gall to the group was Spurlock's effort to get his documentary shown in public schools - an act they found outrageous because it “encourages unhealthy behavior.” Taking aim at the director, they said, “All that Mr. Spurlock has documented is his own poor behavior and personal bias, none of which belong in the classroom.”
- Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films6124 VOTES
Spurlock Made A Sequel, 'Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!'
If you didn't know Spurlock made a sequel, don't feel bad. Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! barely got any attention when it was released. The follow-up finds the director taking on the “Big Chicken” industry. In attempting to open his own chicken restaurant, he learns how major companies like Perdue and Tyson control the vast majority of America's chicken farms, essentially monopolizing the business and leaving farmers who attempt to buck the system floundering for work.
Timing had everything to do with the sequel's lack of visibility. It had a successful premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and was scheduled for subsequent release in theaters and on YouTube Red. But three months later, Spurlock made a #MeToo confession in which he acknowledged multiple instances of past sexual misconduct, including marital infidelity, workplace harassment, and a rape accusation directed against him in college. Literally overnight, Spurlock became damaged goods, and the movie was put on the back burner.
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! finally received a token theatrical release in 2019, with a VOD release occurring simultaneously. Nevertheless, its maker's damaged reputation caused it to arrive with little fanfare or notice, much less impact.