How Super Size Me Really Changed Our Diets

Photo: Nicholas Bailey/REX/Shutterstock.
It was just a little more than a decade ago. But no matter how you look at it, 2004 was very a different time — in terms of pop culture, politics, and especially, food culture. The gluten-free movement, for example, hadn't yet become mainstream. Superfood smoothie bowls had yet to take over our Instagram feeds (because we were still six years away from the launch of Instagram). And Michael Pollan's opus on the way we eat, The Omnivore's Dilemma, was but a draft on his computer — in other words, we were years from the gluten-free, lactose-free, superfoods-only obsessed health culture we have today.

But 2004 was a big year for the burgeoning "clean" eating environment, because it was the year Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

To refresh your memory, this was the film that put Spurlock on the map, the one in which the documentarian decided to eat nothing but McDonald's food for an entire month and film it. He vowed to eat every item on the McDonald's menu at least once. And everything he ate during that month had to be from McDonald's — even water. In addition to changing his diet, Spurlock also eliminated the majority of exercise from his daily life. He tried to limit his steps to 5,000 a day or fewer, to stay in line with the American average. (As of 2014, that figure has risen to about 5,900 steps a day.)

The results were harrowing at the time, if not surprising. Spurlock gained 18 pounds, and his cholesterol increased markedly. He also began to feel depressed, and his girlfriend noted in the film that the all-McDonald's diet was impacting his sexual performance.

"If you decide to keep eating this way, go ahead," Spurlock says in his narration at the end of the film. "Over time, you may find yourself getting as sick as I did." Spurlock emphasized the fact that McDonald's is a business trying to turn a profit, without regard for its menu's effect on customers. The film also features a ghoulish faux-obituary for Ronald McDonald, with Spurlock's narration suggesting that those who eat fast food will end up dead. "Who do you want to see go first — you or them?" he asks, referring to McDonald's.

The film definitely inspired many people to think more critically about the food they were eating, but in the end did it hurt more than help? In honor of the New Year, when so many of us are making resolutions to eat better, we decided to look back at the groundbreaking film, its premise, and the special role it played in kickstarting a revolution in the way we think about food and health.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
How it helped — and hurt.
One of the best things Super Size Me did was to help improve our awareness of diet and nutrition as something that was bigger than just calories. The film joined a larger discussion about where our food actually comes from and how it's actually made, supported by similar media, including books like Fast Food Nation, released in 2001, and The Omnivore's Dilemma, released in 2006. "Americans started thinking a lot more critically about where their food comes from and the overall food system in this country," explains Christy Harrison, MPH, RD. "In itself, this was not a bad thing — and actually it helped push some food producers to start using more sustainable practices in growing our food and offer more reasonable portion sizes at restaurants."

The most obvious effects of the film are the size changes to fast food menus. For example, in addition to adding more salads and fruit on fast food menus, McDonald's has eliminated its "supersize" meal option, though McDonald's denies that decision had anything to do with the film.

Terri Hickey, a McDonald’s spokesperson, told Refinery29 that the decision was among "a number of changes we know our customers value." Most recently, McDonald's recently unveiled two new sizes of Big Mac, including the "Grand Mac," a bigger version of the sandwich, so it seems consumer interests have changed once again.

Meanwhile, Wendy's ditched its "Biggie Size" option in 2006 in name only — it's just called a medium now, even though it's the same. Similarly, Burger King got rid of its "king size" option, but the portion is still available, and is called a large.

Though Mcdonald's denies a direct link between the film and its menu changes, it's hard to argue that Super Size Me had nothing to do with helping increase consumer awareness of size, as well as ingredients and nutrition, which in turn forced the industry to respond. After premiering at Sundance (where Spurlock won the Grand Jury Prize), the film went on to gross $11,536,423 when it hit theaters.

But sizing changes (in name only or otherwise) are not the whole story. The most important thing Super Size Me did was simply raise awareness about our food's impact on our bodies. Whether this new awareness truly improved the health of the country remains to be seen. Weight was a huge concern in the film. But since 2004, the obesity rate has actually risen slightly from 32.2% of the population to 36.5% in 2015, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, heart disease remains the top cause of death in the United States for both men and women.

But more important, perhaps, is the way we sort of took it overboard. Being food-conscious itself can be taken to unhealthy levels, and this is where the impact of the film turns a bit dark, with the rise of the idea of "eating clean." In part because of Super Size Me, it wasn't just skipping fast food that became important, Harrison says. "Food-label reading became a national pastime, and with it came a lot of anxiety about choosing the healthiest foods and avoiding 'processed' ones," Harrison says.

While it's never bad to be conscious of what you're eating, the problem with the reaction to Super Size Me is that it helped to create an atmosphere of fear-mongering. Perhaps without Super Size Me, there would be no space for the infamous "clean-eating" crusader Food Babe.

To this day, there's still no real definition of what "clean eating" means. This is made worse by the fact that a lot of what makes a food "good" or "clean" is constantly changing and is often based on misconception. For instance, just keeping with the fast food examples, McDonald's took high fructose corn syrup out of its buns because clean-eating consumers demanded it, but that didn't change the fact that the buns are still a source of refined carbohydrates, which are generally thought of as less healthy than whole grains. Making the bun "cleaner" didn't change it's basic nutrition, in other words. Similarly, other claims in the "clean eating" community, like the idea that aspartame can cause cancer, are completely overblown, causing unnecessary worry.

The same goes for conversations about avoiding food that's been "processed." In reality not all things that are processed are evil, including fast food. These options are key to a sane relationship with food, Harrison says. Processed food can often be decently nutritious and can even make healthier eating easier (and therefore more likely) by saving you time and offering convenience. It's not even "bad" to eat things like McDonald's sometimes, just not everyday like Spurlock did.

In the end, the film was a fascinating experiment, but it didn't reflect the reality of American's lives. (One critic at the time said of the film, "[Spurlock's] attempt to demonstrate the link between [health and fast food], using himself as an experimental subject, represents an entertaining, and occasionally horrifying, statement of the obvious.") The film also helped start a movement with an unrealistic quest for perfection at its center.

Let's hope that the next step in our food culture is reaching a place of balance — that's something that may actually lead to a healthier, happier 2017.
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