Big Mac Counterattack

Super Size Me and the case against fast food.

The siren call of the Golden Arches

The United States is about to undergo a paradigm shift in the way it eats, and the success of Morgan Spurlock’s super-entertaining, super-disgusting documentary Super Size Me will have something to do with it. With any luck, Spurlock’s odyssey will do for patrons of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc., what scientists did for the sociopathic Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971) when they pried his eyes wide open, administered a drug to induce nausea, and forced him to ogle hours and hours of violence. It will put you off your fast food—or, at least, slow you down. Just the thought of a Quarter Pounder With Cheese and a large fries makes me gag these days. And not too long ago, I was addicted to the stuff.

Yes, I’m one of those annoying reformed junkies—but hear me out. While you probably think of movie critics as lean, suave, and athletic bon vivants, I was anything but. After late screenings in Times Square, I was hitting the McDonald’s outlets pretty hard. There I’d be, at 11 p.m., chowing down under the harsh fluorescents with all the other pale and blobby souls, feeling more and more disgusted with myself after every bite. On those nights, I learned the true meaning of “reflux.” And from a comfortable 160 pounds (I’m 5-feet-9), I shot up to a shamefaced (and triple-chinned) 220. I don’t blame McDonald’s—I blame my indulgent self. But as all my hungry fat cells yodeled, “Feed me! Feed me!” those fast-food outlets beckoned. What they offered was the most efficient delivery system for fat, salt, sugar, and carbs known to man. And I deserved a break today.

For Super Size Me, Spurlock came up with a magnificent stunt—but one that seemed to leap from the collective unconscious of our fast-food nation. He would spend a month eating nothing but McDonald’s food, three meals a day, and if they asked if he wanted it supersized, he’d say, “Yes, I would!” But only if they asked. In the movie’s first gross-out set piece, Spurlock goes to the drive-through window, orders a Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese meal, supersizes it, and settles in for an orgy.

This is the American dream, isn’t it? To sit in your oversized car (where you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone) and eat an oversized meal of crap. Sure, there are nutrients in there somewhere, but not in proportion to calories, sugar, and sodium. And after you’ve inhaled that stuff (it goes down fast—there’s nothing really to masticate), it makes you feel bad. Spurlock mentions McBloat and McGas, among other symptoms. A few minutes later, he pukes out the window, with the cameraman helpfully leaning over to show the vomit on the pavement.

Spurlock consumed way too many calories—5,000 a day—even for his fit, 6-foot-2-inch frame. But no one, least of all the doctors who agreed to monitor him, expected the scale of what happened next: a gain of 25 pounds and a cholesterol leap of 65 points. His liver filled up with fat. He was depressed, exhausted, and, according to his vegan-chef girlfriend, semi-impotent. On camera, his doctors regard him the way they would a man on the verge of a massive coronary. They tell him to get to a hospital at the first sign of chest pains—and it’s handy because, as Spurlock shows us, there are hospitals that have a McDonald’s right in them.

We can choose to blame or not blame McDonald’s (Spurlock chose the company simply because it’s the most visible, with almost 100 outlets on the island of Manhattan alone), but the statistics he cites are hard to refute: Americans eat out for an average of 40 percent of their meals; portion sizes have ballooned; and two-thirds of all Americans are considered overweight—i.e., with a body mass index above 25. Half of those can be termed “obese.” It begins early; in the course of his monthlong regime, Spurlock hits the road and visits public schools, where processed foods, sugary soft drinks, and french fries are the rule rather than the exception. Many junk-food-makers welcome the chance to hook kids at an early age.

In the course of his absurd and manifestly self-destructive exercise, Spurlock uses sprightly animation to take us through the life-cycle of a Chicken McNugget—a “McFrankenstein creation.” He visits McDonald’s outlets in Los Angeles and Houston, the city with proportionately the fattest inhabitants. He gives time to a man who eats several Big Macs a day and is not overweight. (The guy passes up the fries, though.) He talks to doctors, lawyers, nutritionists, ex-Surgeon General David Satcher, and a food-industry rep—everyone but McDonald’s, which won’t return his calls.

After the movie created a stir at this year’s Sundance festival, McDonald’s did weigh in. The company announced the end of supersizing—and claimed that this decision had nothing to do with Spurlock. Fer sher. It has since issued a statement calling Super Size Me “a super-sized distortion of the quality, choice, and variety available at McDonald’s.” Uh, do they mean those salads? The statement goes on to say that the film is not about McDonald’s but “Spurlock’s decision to act irresponsibly—a gimmick to make a film.”

Is it a gimmick? Sure—a terrific gimmick. Did he act irresponsibly? Yes, but what he did is not as far outside the realm of mainstream American behavior as some would have you believe. Is he a hustler? Maybe. Spurlock is not the most attractive personality: He once made a gross-out reality dare show for MTV. And I think he makes a mistake in the film by putting so much emphasis on lawyers suing McDonald’s on behalf of obese people. That’s an easy target for libertarians and those “free-enterprise” groups that are largely funded by the food industry. You’re going to hear a lot of broadsides from organizations like the Center for Consumer Freedom and the National Review, which has already likened the crusade against calorie-laden fast food and its purveyors to that other left-liberal scam, global warming. Next thing they’ll be telling us that cigarettes cause cancer.

No, I don’t think anyone should sue McDonald’s. Just stop buying its food. I did, and I lost 60 pounds last year—I’m back down to 160. I also cut down on carbs (but not carrots, apples, and other Atkins bugaboos) and beer, and I started running again. My dieting advice is to begin by seeing Super Size Me—a vital shock to the system. It will prop your eyes wide open.