‘Super Size Me’ film review

‘Food Journey’ Documentary Film Reviews from a Dietetic Perspective

This food documentary review is the first of two. The common theme is following one or more people on a “food journey”, which is loosely defined by me as focusing on personal experiences with food, where food is the antagonist or protagonist of the story. Each film will be graded according to how well-made and enjoyable they are as well as how accurate they are with their nutrition claims.

My first review is a documentary that helped put documentaries on the map in 2004, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. It grossed over 11 million dollars and was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. Morgan Spurlock wrote, directed, and starred in this documentary that explores the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and the role that fast food, specifically McDonalds, plays. Over the course of one month, Spurlock only eats McDonalds and he adheres to the following four rules:

  1. He will only super-size his meals if they ask him
  2. He can only eat food from McDonald’s
  3. He has to eat everything on the menu at least once
  4. He must eat three meals a day.

He also attempts to keep his exercise to a minimum and reduces his daily walking to no more than the average person gets per day (around 5,000 steps). Before he embarks on his month-long McDonald’s meal plan, he has three doctors give him physicals and blood panel check-ups to give him the all-clear and to establish a baseline for his health.

Spurlock intersperses interviews with marketing specialists, doctors, nutritionists, lawyers, and Americans on the street with footage of him ordering meals from McDonald’s, eating meals from McDonald’s, and even a McDonald’s meal spontaneously exiting Mr. Spurlock’s stomach onto the parking lot pavement.

Despite the film’s focus on obesity and the daunting task of addressing the growing epidemic, Super Size Me remains mostly light and comedic in tone. Several of the interviews, especially the ones with former Surgeon General Dr. Satcher, and public interest attorney, John Banzhaf III, are compelling in their arguments and assertions that significant change is needed to address our country’s approach to food. Dr. Satcher states that the number of overweight children has doubled in the last 25 years, and Banzhaf equates the battle against fast food and junk food companies to the battle fought against corporate tobacco in its significance for the public’s health. Several experts, including professors and psychologists, also discuss advertising’s role in the obesity epidemic. Fast food and much of the food industry makes a special effort to target children in their ads and promotional materials (happy meals, cartoon characters, etc.).

Between the interviews, we revisit Spurlock and find that he has seen dramatic shifts in the wrong direction for both his physical and mental health. He has gained 13% of his body weight (over 24 pounds) and his total cholesterol climbed to an unhealthy 230mg/dL from a healthy 168mg/dL.

There are compelling facts and arguments in Super Size Me, and most of them are backed up by experts and research. During Spurlock’s visits to a couple of schools, he finds that the majority of meals being served are reheated frozen meals with very little cooking taking place. Since this film was made 13 years ago, the school lunch programs have drastically improved. But despite a study that shows cooking from scratch in schools can be affordable, many school districts cannot afford to hire more staff to meet the labor demands. The more appropriate venue for Spurlock to express this concern is with legislatures, as school districts do not always have the financial capacity to enact such a drastic change. The same can be said with Spurlock’s attempts to contact McDonald’s to talk with them about their business practices. After the film was released, McDonald’s stopped ‘supersizing’ meals, but in order to see significant change within our food system, it requires policy change that comes from advocating with policymakers. Shaming an industry has not been a viable route for lasting change in the U.S. food system.

Another area where Spurlock could have improved his effectiveness would have been to focus more on other areas of the American diet and not focus his diet solely on McDonalds. Out of the over 300 million people in the United States it is highly doubtful that anyone consumes solely McDonalds as a diet. In fact, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2004 (when the film came out), and in 2016, the average American household spent close to $1000 more each year on food consumed at home (groceries) than food consumed at restaurants, including fast food. And according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), fast food products, including burgers and French fries did not even make the top 10 food items that contribute the most calories to the American diet for both children and adults.

Also, Spurlock’s diet was not representative nutritionally of the average American diet. He ate on average, 5,000 calories a day; whereas the average American man’s caloric intake is close to 2,500 calories a day. His registered dietitian, Bridget Bennet, warned him and advised him to eat fewer calories and eat healthier options (more fruits and vegetables and lower fat options) than the options he was choosing to be ‘representative’ of the typical American diet. Eating 5,000 calories a day for almost anyone would cause weight gain and adverse health effects, even if the diet was not made up solely of McDonalds.

Even with a dated, less refined visual aesthetic and with a few other missteps, Spurlock has crafted an entertaining and thought-provoking film that takes an accurate lens to our current food systems and the damage they can cause.

Critic’s Score: B-

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