Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock took a journey to the dark side of “Super size.”
To challenge McDonald’s claim that its food is nutritious, Spurlock ate all of his meals at the fast-food giant for a month. He ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at McDonalds and documented his experience in a film called “Supersize me.”
The result? He gained 9 pounds in five days, and gained 25 pounds by the end of the month. His cholesterol rose by 60 points.
A year, thousands of fries, and tens of thousands of calories later, Spurlock has an award-winning film in the can. He claimed the best director award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Human guinea pig
The idea for the film came to Spurlock when he heard that two girls who were suing McDonald’s for their obesity. “When I first heard this, I thought it was completely ludicrous,” he said on Deborah Norville Tonight Thursday. “But the more I started to hear about the suits, and the marketing practices, the amount of ingredients that go into making very simple food items… I said, ‘You know what? There’s definitely an argument here.’”
As part of his experiment, Spurlock set some parameters: He agreed to “Super size” whenever he was asked, and he also limited his physical activity. “The average American walks about a mile and a half a day. I wanted to live the typical American lifestyle of overeating and under-exercising, and so I stopped riding my bike.”
Even before the month was up, Spurlock’s doctors were begging him to stop his experiment. “What really started happening internally was that my cholesterol jumping up. The depression set in. I think it was not exercising too, because I do get a lot out of it. But the impact that it had on my liver—doctors are comparing it to cirrhosis.” Spurlock claims he was on the route to giving myself what is called “non-alcoholic’s hepatitis.”
Spurlock says that he wasn’t targeting the fast-food chain in particular. “It could have happened anywhere,” he says. “But McDonald's is by far the leader. They feed more than 46 million people every single day. I wanted to pick the company that, in my mind, was emulated. I wanted to pick the company that can most easily institute change if they wanted to and that everybody would follow."
McDonald's Corporation isn't particularly happy about the movie, and they released this statement: “This movie is all about one individual‘s decision to act irresponsibly by consuming more than 5,000 calories a day—twice the recommended level for adult males—and by purposely limiting his physical activity. That's why this movie makes no contribution to the important dialogue taking place today on nutrition and balanced lifestyles.”
Cathy Kapica, who works as a global nutritionist for McDonald's Corporation, spoke for the fast-food chain on Deborah Norville Tonight, in a rare rebuttal to the movie. “The movie really is not about McDonald's,” she said. “It‘s about one individual‘s behavior. Mr. Spurlock had fun with the problem of obesity. But when it comes to really looking at solutions and helping our customers—that's what McDonald's is all about.”
Is change ahead?
This March, McDonald’s announced that it is getting rid of “super size.” McDonald’s said it has begun phasing out the extra large portions of fries and drinks in its more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants and will stop selling them altogether by year’s end, except in promotions.
To those who question the timing of the end of “super size” coinciding with the release of the movie, Kapica says, “The whole demise of super size was decided long before anyone heard of Mr. Spurlock. In fact it was a sent out to our system for elimination by the end of 2004, in December of 2003.”
One of the reasons given was “menu simplification” and that “super size” sales were low. “It started out as a value option. When you talk about ‘super size,’ especially with something like French fries, those are shared by a family. But over the years our customers were telling us they're no longer interested in it.”
The move is part of McDonald’s “Eat Smart, Be Active” initiative, which it launched last year under first-year CEO Jim Cantalupo and U.S. operations chief Mike Roberts in an attempt to revive sales.
McDonald’s has also added entree salads, and has been moving to provide more fruit, vegetable and yogurt options with its Happy Meals.
They also introduced the “Go Active Meal,” a Happy Meal for grown ups. “This year is the 25th anniversary of Happy Meals, so it is about time we decided that kids shouldn‘t have all the fun,” said Kapica.
The meal comes with a salad and a pedometer, a tool that counts the number of steps a person takes in a day. Also included is a booklet written by Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer, that provides tips on how to increase physical activity.
The burger giant is also introducing Apple Dippers—peeled sliced apples that come with a low-fat caramel sauce for dipping.
“McDonald's can be part of a healthy eating style,” says Kapica. “It is a matter of balance. And that means the amount of food that you eat coupled with the amount of physical activity that you do.”
This discussion was the full-hour special on 'Deborah Norville Tonight,' Thursday, May 13.