When filmmaker Morgan Spurlock nearly ate himself to death last year, little did he know that his diet would become a fast-food flashpoint. He merely congratulated himself for having, as a friend put it, "a really great bad idea."
"It's one of those things that's so easy, so simple, nobody else had thought of it, and it dealt with something that was so topical," Spurlock says. "I couldn't turn on the TV, I couldn't open up the paper without reading about the obesity crisis."
The idea? In February 2003, the strapping 33-year-old American male with a big voice, a Fu Manchu and the demeanor of a jock went on a strictly McDonald's diet for 30 days -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and documented it for a film he calls "Super Size Me," which opens here May 7.
One of the rules he set for himself was that if a McDonald's employee asked if he wanted a super-size, he had to take it. Another was that he would exercise no more than the average person, which is to say hardly at all. Prior to embarking on this "journey," as he calls it, Spurlock had his baseline medical condition documented by a trio of specialists.
After three weeks of cheeseburgers and Chicken McNuggets, Spurlock was falling apart. He'd gained more than 20 pounds and his cholesterol had shot up 65 points. He was suffering from "McGurgles," "McGas," a fatty liver, asthma, chest pains, heart palpitations, sugar/caffeine highs and lows and sexual dysfunction. (His girlfriend, Alexandra Jamieson, a vegan chef, of all things, said, "He gets tired easily.")
"By day 21, I was scared to death," Spurlock says. "You're seeing things as I felt them. You're hearing me talk to the doctors and getting my reactions as the doctor is telling me I'm going to be like Nicolas Cage in 'Leaving Las Vegas.' He killed himself [with alcohol] in a couple of weeks. Could something really bad have happened? Absolutely."
Some have credited Spurlock's documentary, which won the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, with influencing McDonald's. The company has announced that by the end of this year, it will have scaled back its super-size 42-ounce sodas to 32 ounces and the super-size 7-ounce fries to 6 ounces. Now it remains to be seen whether the rest of the fast-food industry will follow suit.
Regardless, the current downsizing and diet debates no doubt will affect the film's theatrical prospects.
"I think that it further legitimized the movie," Spurlock says. "The movie has helped change the menu."
McDonald's doesn't agree. "Super Size Me" "had nothing to do with it," says McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker, who thinks of Spurlock as a Johnny-come-lately on the dietary scene. "The super-size issue was vetted in 2003. Documents went out at the end of 2003 to our owners about the phaseout."
Spurlock has been called the Michael Moore of fast food. Like Moore with his films "Roger & Me" (about corporate downsizing) and "Bowling for Columbine" (America's gun culture), he's found an entertaining way to push a hot-button issue, in this case a looming health crisis brought about by expanding waistlines. Obesity is second only to cigarette smoking as a killer of Americans. Two out of three adults and 9 million children are overweight. Nearly 300,000 people die of obesity-related illnesses each year. The estimated social costs are $117 billion a year. The House of Representatives has passed what's been called a "cheeseburger bill" and the states are offering up "baby McBills" to shelter the fast-food industry from litigation that has sprung up around this health catastrophe.
Just such a lawsuit got Spurlock thinking about making this film. He was lolling about his parents' house one Thanksgiving when he saw a TV report about a pair of girls who sued McDonald's for contributing to their obesity-related health problems. It wasn't the suit itself that set him off. (He thought at the time that consumers freely make choices, though he's not so sure about that now, especially with respect to children.) It was the food companies' response to it.
"Representatives of the food companies came forward and said, 'You can't link our food to these kids being sick, you can't link our food to these kids being obese, our food is nutritious, it's part of a balanced diet, it is good for you,' " says Spurlock, a confirmed carnivore and an occasional eater of fast food. "I was like, 'If it's that good for me, I should be able to eat it all the time.' "
"Any credible fitness expert will tell you eating 5,000 calories a day is not a good idea," says Riker, who eats at McDonald's once a week (two hamburgers, two apple pies) and weighs 150 pounds. "Our customers are smart. They don't need a movie to tell them what's best for them."