June 16, 2004

Super Size Me

You WOULD like fries with that

Super Size Me posterSuper Size Me
Starring: Morgan Spurlock
Directed by: Morgan Spurlock
MPAA says nothing about this movie. There is much eating, one scene of gastric distress, and a few glimpses of a surgery.
Running time: 98 minutes
Release date: May 14
Seen at: Regal Arbor Cinema at Great Hills, an artsy house where the seats may actually have a bit too much leg room. I felt oddly exposed. Not to mention unable to slouch and rest my feet on the seat in front of me.

Outside Food: Odwalla Super Protein drink, and a peanut-butter-and-ginseng Balance bar. Once you get past the seaweedy texture, the swampy green Odwalla drink is quite tasty, but my healthbar was covered with chocolate! I couldn't choke it down.

Outside Food Critic attempts to become a Breatharian
Somewhere along the way, the Outside Food Critic lost interest in non-contextual food. Noshing outside food at the movies is great fun and, of course, only proper; but away from a movie, food has less and less appeal. Outside Food Critic would live on sunbeams and humid air (both in abundance here) and on the vibes from our degenerating environment, if not that Secret Agent Jim keeps showing up around lunchtime to invite me out to Wendy's, Whataburger, or Quizno's (they got a pepper baarrr).

Secret Agent Jim doesn't believe in Breatharianism. Frankly, neither does Outside Food Critic, and in fact I recently heard that Breatharianism's founder, Wiley Brooks, was spotted chowing at a Dunkin' Donuts (no, seriously). But some days, food just plain isn't appetising. It's possible Outside Food Critic has had too steady a diet of Wendy's, Whataburger, and Quizno's.

And, yet, even with all this living off air and tinfoil-hat philosophy, Outside Food Critic is still officially overweight.

Couldn't be the fast food, could it?

"Patient is embarking on a one-month McDonald's binge"
Super Size Me is, in a word, rivetting. The movie spends a lot of time around my old New York City haunts, but documentarian Morgan Spurlock spreads the love and the noshing to various locations across the country, interviewing doctors, nutritionists, corporate spokespeople, and Just Folks along the way. Spurlock is a charming, personable guy, is entertaining company, and is not easily embarrassed by bodily functions or the ribbing from his unseen cameraman. His nice girlfriend happens to be a gourmet vegan chef who doesn't even like it that Spurlock eats meat of any sort. In all, this was a brave endeavour.

The rules Spurlock set himself were as follows: for thirty days beginning in the month of February, he would eat only food available at McDonald's, drink only drinks available at McDonald's, three square meals a day. He would super-size his meals only if asked. He committed to eating everything on the menu at least once. Since statistics show that 60% of Americans get basically no exercise, Spurlock would limit his. Although New Yorkers commonly walk 4-5 miles a day (versus a national average of 5000 steps, and believe me, I noticed the difference after leaving New York), Spurlock would limit his own walking. He begins his culinary adventure on the McDonald's-heavy island of Manhattan, where there are four of the restaurants for every square mile. Spurlock's girlfriend is, in a word, dubious.

Thankfully, McDonald's also sells water.

A cardiologist, gastroenterologist, and GP provided the medical supervision, and a chi-chi nutritionist monitored general progress. Her first bit of advice: For a man of Spurlock's 6'2" and 185.5 pounds (188cm, 84.1kg), his recommended daily caloric intake is 2500 calories. On his new fast-food diet, he will end up consuming 5000 calories a day.

Spurlock's general health was "outstanding," his cholesterol levels low; the doctors' predictions were mild. The body is extraordinarily adaptable, they assure us all, and the kidneys and liver will ramp up to handle excess sugar and fat. Spurlock should be more than up to the task.

Within five days, he gained nearly 10 pounds.

And then things get interesting.

Inflated statistics?
The statistics seem grim: 60% of Americans are obese, and 400,000 deaths per year are attributed to weight-related illnesses. However, I seem to recall that this latest obsession with how oversized America is flared up in the aftermath of new guidelines for what constitutes "overweight" and "obese."

Women who some circles call "fan size" can be large and beautiful and sexy and confident, just as much as they are stereotyped as unhealthy and odd. It can be easy to forget, while inundated with media images, that there are cultures, even within the United States, where a larger weight is considered beneficial, or a sign of prosperity, or a symbol of great beauty; particularly in places where the average physiology simply naturally puts on more weight than is acceptable in the Keira Knightley-adoring parts of society.

Full disclosure: I am 5'6-1/4" (about 168 cm) and currently weigh, according to the scale in Secret Agent Jim's kitchen, 165 pounds (about 75 kg), and would do just about anything to get rid of the newly acquired fat over my stomach, including (gasp!) exercise. When I moved to this land of heat too intense for walking, where people drive their cars around the corner to the supermarket, I put on 45 pounds (all right, part of it was due to an illness, but still—two words: Tex Mex). According to a dot-gov Body Mass Index Calculator, I am currently at the high end of overweight. All that weight is muscle mass from fencing! I can say this, because you can't see me.

I know this weight gain is normal for my family background and age. On the other hand, I wish I hadn't eaten so much fast food.

"Brand imprinting for later actuation in life"
That's what cigarette companies have been known to call the marketing of harmless products (candy, for example), to children. It's like marketing any other product—just get the company logo implanted at the back of the mind, so that, at some later date, like a line of little ducks the consumers reach for your product.

Wendy's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Domino's, Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's, and snackfood purveyors are on the list of Super Size Me's culprits. But McDonald's bears the brunt because of its high profile (one indelible image: an arrow pointing to an in-hospital McDonald's, the same colour and side-by-side with the sign pointing toward Emergency) and because of how it targets children: cartoons and clowns, play areas, originating the Happy Meal and its must-have toys. Of course, just about every other fast-food restaurant snaps at the chance to feature a tie-in to the latest children's movie. The effect of Super Size Me on McDonald's recent changes in offerings can only be speculated on; Spurlock was unsuccessful after multiple attempts to get rebuttal from McDonald's corporate heads or even to get a reply from its "Director of Corporate Communications and Social Responsibility."

I distinctly remember my first trip to McDonald's, my love affair with the hamburger's tiny diced onions and the excitement of the exotic addition of mustard on the burgers in Miami. Trips to McDonald's were rare treats when I was young. I admit to a sense of warm-fuzzy nostalgia when I head into the drive-through lane. Imprinting works.

TIP #1: Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT eat the McNuggets.

The documentary does not lose sight of the issue of personal versus corporate responsibility, but no one is off the hook here. On his road trip, Spurlock interviews men and women and kids from various classes of society about their fast-food habits. He shares a meal with a "Big Mac enthusiast" who eats the burgers every day. There's also the woman from France Spurlock seems to have bumped into outside a McDonald's in Manhattan's Chinatown, who expresses alarm at the size of a "small" drink in the US but musters only a weary smile at the American pastime of suing.

He spends some time with Professor John Banzahf, who first successfully sued cigarette companies and whose motto was "sue the bastards," and briefly interviews the extremely unapologetic attorney Samuel Hirsch.

There are a few scattered spots where the documentary's message is blurred. A teenage girl expresses her exasperation with the unrealistic extremes young women are meant to aspire to, as her face is covered with a series of images of slender, skinny, and emaciated models. He interviews a fairly tall, overweight fourteen-year-old girl who has just met Jared "lost 235 pounds eating Subway" Fogel—the anti-Spurlock, as it were. She has no idea how to manage her own weight, and knows only she can't afford to do it by eating Subway. We are also told that her family has had a history of extreme weight problems dating from well before the era of the fast-food joint. These are interesting tidbits, but not actually much in the way of counterbalance.

TIP #2: Guys, note—Spurlock's pretty girlfriend says the sex is just not as good as when he was on a healthy diet, and Spurlock concurs.

Alex and MorganWatch, as Spurlock's delight on kissing his first double quarter pounder with cheese turns to horror, when eating an entire McDinner becomes an exhausting workout for someone unused to the cuisine. Thrill, when, after 47 minutes of struggling, he cannot keep his first supersized meal down. This produced fewer gasps in the audience than the revelations about how many government-defined "portions" are in a single Big Mac and just how much soda is in a Big Gulp. How many of us notice those eight extra ounces of watered down cherry coke for an extra 25 cents when the packaging is so pretty, cheap, and convenient? No one who sees Super Size Me is likely to forget.

Spurlock's diet causes drastic results (who is surprised?). By the end of the month his organs do show some signs of beginning to adjust to the strain of this massive sugar (a pound a day) and fat intake. The body, as Spurlock's doctors initially assured him, can be forced to adapt; but... why? Along the way, Spurlock suffers from addiction-like cravings, mood swings, twenty-five pounds of weight gain, striking increase in cholesterol level, and is in danger of becoming an 18th-century bewigged and waistcoat-wearing old rich guy—I mean, is at risk for gout. His liver, says the GP on day 18, is sick. By day 21, the GP has changed his assessment to "obscene."

But, once he gets used to the menu, Spurlock makes one point clear: This food tastes good.

"Local Specialty"
In Texas, Spurlock sampled the Texas Homestyle Meal and the newly introduced McGriddle sandwich, a breakfast offering with the syrup already cooked in. Texas was home to five of the fifteen "heaviest" cities in the United States (later increasing to eight of the top fifteen) and, when he visited it, Houston was at the uncoveted number-one spot. The reaction of the Texas audience in the theatre moved on from shock over the Big Gulp to uneasy abashment.

The documentary looks beyond McDonald's to the larger issues of how adults eat and how they feed the next generation. Public school lunches are provided by the lowest bidders, with mottoes such as "[Children] will learn to make the right choices." Cafeterias offer fries, chips, candy bars, and sugar-water lemonade but offer no direction to the kids on the lunchlines. Other schools receive government-supplied reconstituted meals, some individual lunches weighing in at 1196 calories. It was a relief to see the fresh food prepared at one alternative school, which found that the behaviour of its "troubled" teens improved when their diet improved.

Ah, yet more nostalgia. I remember when a soda machine was installed in my little (private) school. It seemed so unnatural, hulking and humming in a vague mist under a flight of stairs by the first-grade classroom (much easier access for the 5-to-10 year olds than for the junior high and high schoolers). Its shiny products should have been more appealing than the little pints of milk, chocolate milk, and watery sugary orange (colour, not fruit content) drink served in the cafeteria (even farther a jaunt for the high school kids than to the soda machine). But something felt wrong about its very presence.

Not that it mattered much to the older kids. My friends and I went out for pizza and root beer every day. The other clique walked the extra two blocks to McDonald's.

TIP #3: Do NOT eat the McGriddle sandwich; it's pure sugar and fat. The salads can be just as over-sugared, and are fattier than a Big Mac, if you add the dressing.

For the adult consumer, "The solution lies in good education," says the spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA). GMA is the lobbying body for the product lines that decorate supermarket shelves, for companies with names like Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo (zombies!), Nestle, Sara Lee (nobody doesn't like her), and Smucker; with products from Cheetos to Cheerios and Froot Loops to Fritos. But who is providing that good education? Not, in any significant way, the lobbyists, nor the various McDonald's restaurants Spurlock searched for information.

Each time the GMA logo appears you can practically hear the Imperial March from Star Wars. Don't blame us, explains the GMA; praise us for providing an "affordable abundance of food." "Affordable abundance of food" is their go-to line. As an example from a different controversy: the GMA has balked at and campaigned against telling consumers when they are being offered genetically modified foods. The arguments consistently boil down to: We provide an abundance of food such as the world has never known, and if we give people the choice of not buying genetically modified products, profits will suffer. The arrogance of their stance has been expressed clearly, and in so many words: They have decided there is no harm done by their products, so it doesn't actually matter whether or not anyone wishes to choose not to eat it; in fact, consumers should not be given that choice, as they are too misguided to be allowed to threaten the bottom line. That issue disturbs me so thoroughly, I become nearly incoherent trying to discuss it.

Imagine my apoplexy when nearly the exact same wording is heard here. It is nice to hear the spokesman say, "We're part of the problem." He follows it up with, "And we need to be part of the solution." But beyond that, in this documentary we hear only the tired line about the masses being educated to make their own healthy choices, through mysterious and unspecified and unimplemented ways that are clearly outweighed by the abundance of pre-processed-food advertising.

TIP #4: Stop drinking soda! OMG! Stop now! Do you know what's in that stuff?

As Morgan Spurlock comes to enjoy his McMeals more and more, he must also acknowledge junk food's effect on mood. The experience of eating becomes not so much about taste and texture as its effect directly on receptors in the brain. An opiate of the masses has never looked so delicious. Yummy.

Have I mentioned yet, that this food tastes good?

Don't try this at home.
Super Size Me touches on many other aspects of life in a fast-food, sedentary world, packing quite a lot into its non-super-sized hour and a half. A gastric bypass surgery is presented as a sort of cautionary tale, but it can be quite beneficial any time it's pursued for the right reasons. Don't get the impression this is a gloomy movie—Spurlock is good-natured and good-humoured. I won't even go into the freaky art by Ron English or the freaky GW Bush thing (don't worry, it's not political, just... freaky). And I won't spoil the revelations at the very end of the movie, except to say eating is easier than detoxing.

While typing up this review, I heard approximately a kabillion commercials for ice cream, fast food, snack foods, and candy. But that's only a rough estimate.

To See or Not to See? TIP #5: See this movie.

Posted by OutsideFood at June 16, 2004 09:53 PM

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