Morgan Spurlock set out to make a movie. He ended up a crusader. And all it took was 5,000 calories a day.
To produce “Super Size Me,” his riveting and often revolting indictment of American eating habits and the fast food industry, Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food and drink for 30 days. He says he consumed 30 pounds of sugar and 12 pounds of fat.
Monitored by three doctors, the filmmaker ate three meals a day, tried everything on the menu at least once, accepted super-size portions when offered and refused anything he couldn’t buy at the restaurant.
The result: He ballooned by 25 pounds and got sick.
A funny, scary ideaAt the beginning, it sounded funny, Spurlock says. Stuffed from a Thanksgiving dinner in 2002, he saw a news report about two teenagers suing McDonald’s for allegedly causing their weight gain and health problems.
What would happen, he wondered, if he ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month?
A great film, he figured. And critics say it is: The 98-minute documentary won a best directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival and opens nationwide Friday.
With deadpan delivery, animation and graphics, and a way of making common sights like a Big Gulp container seem shocking, Spurlock is able to keep the film lighthearted even as he argues fast food may be why the number of obese Americans has doubled since 1980.
Some moments trigger both gasps and chuckles, like when a group of children studying photographs can identify Ronald McDonald — but not Jesus.
“I don’t like to be told what to do or preached to,” Spurlock says. “I wanted it to be entertaining and leave it up to you to decide what to do.”
Becoming a believerBut in discussing his film and his mission to help Americans eat better, Spurlock is intense and on message, as determined as a politician seeking office. Enthusiastic about his new-found pulpit, he tends to dominate conversation with rapid-fire, statistic-filled answers.
“When you make a movie that affects people the way this film does, you have an obligation to get the message out, to lead this dialogue and lead this discussion beyond the film,” he explains. “I’m a believer now.”
Spurlock returned to his native West Virginia last week for special screenings with health educators in Wheeling and Morgantown, and at a film festival in Charleston. At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, he’s back to the long and lean shape he was in before his experiment.
West Virginia, however, has become the nation’s second-fattest state behind Mississippi with 24.6 percent of the population considered obese. The state agency that insures public employees invited Spurlock to help bolster its multimedia portion-control campaign.
“This is a very frightening film for the food industry because it’s a film that shows that eating their food on a very heavy basis is dangerous,” says the 33-year-old from Beckley, who grew up on mom’s home cooking and whose girlfriend is a vegan chef. “A lot of Americans are on a path to being very sick.
“There’s no thought about what we’re eating and what’s going to happen to our bodies next week, next month, next year,” he says. “The last thing they want you to do is think about what you’re eating because they’re making millions by you not.”
McDonald's reactsSince Spurlock finished his film, McDonald’s has begun eliminating super-sizing and is rolling out healthier choices. On May 11, it begins offering adult Happy Meals with salad, bottled water and pedometers.
Company spokesman Walt Riker has said the changes have nothing to do with the film, which he calls “a super-sized distortion of the quality, choice and variety available at McDonald’s.”
The film is not about McDonald’s, Riker says, but about Spurlock’s decision to act irresponsibly by eating 5,000 calories a day — “a gimmick to make a film.” U.S. health officials recommend 2,200 calories a day for most men.
Adds Cathy Kapica, McDonald’s global nutrition director: “I don’t want to judge what people consider to be entertainment, but watching him force-feed himself to the point of vomiting and getting a rectal exam is not how I prefer to spend my free time.”
Spurlock, a nonsmoker and nondrinker who works out regularly, acknowledges his diet may have been extreme but believes it’s comparable to many Americans’ eating habits.
“As much as they can say this is unrealistic, this food is rooted in the reality of how we live our lives,” he says.
Dangerous dietAt the start of his 30-day binge, doctors use words like “superb,” “perfect” and “outstanding” to describe Spurlock’s blood and cholesterol levels and his overall health. He has 11 percent body fat and is declared above average in fitness.
He stops exercising because most Americans don’t. His muscle turns to mush, and his body fat soars to 18 percent.
Before long, the doctors call his condition “obscene” and “outrageous,” comparing the liver damage that Spurlock has begun to suffer to that of an alcoholic. One cites the onset of a benign liver condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. It is usually seen in obese people.
It took Spurlock 14 months to get back to his original weight, and his liver is now normal.
“When you go to the doctor, what you eat is one of the last questions asked,” he says. “The impact of food on your body, your well being, is so immense. But there’s no money in people eating broccoli. There’s money in people eating pills.”
Spurlock will spend the summer promoting his movie, then take his message to high schools and colleges. In all, he’ll be devoting another year of his life to the cause.
“I look at my film as a snapshot of your life. This 30 days is what could happen to you in 20, 30, 40 years if you continue to eat the way most Americans eat,” he says. “You can develop all these health problems ... that can be stopped right now if you change the way you eat and start exercising.”