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Weighing the Impact of ‘Super Size Me’

Is "Super Size Me" just another documentary? Or is it helping change the face of the Fast Food industry?
Last year, Morgan Spurlock began filming an experiment that would answer the question, "Is fast food really all that bad?'

His mission was to eat nothing but McDonald's for 30 days. During the 30 days he followed very specific guidelines. He had to try everything on the menu at least once, he could only super size a meal if offered, and -- most importantly -- if he couldn't get it over the McDonald's counter, he couldn't eat it. These rules weren't arbitrary. They were determined as a result of Judge Robert Sweet's 64 page decision which dismissed the case of Pelman v. McDonald's. This was the well known case which inspired Spurlock's dive into the world of Biggie Fries and McFlurries. I'm sure you've heard about it. A bunch of obese teens and their parents decided to sue McDonald's for making them fat. Ah, crazy lawsuits. Almost more typically American than obesity.

The case was in fact dismissed because the teens' attorneys failed to show that a McDonald's-only diet could alone cause serious health problems. When he heard about Pelman v. McDonald's on the news after a filling Thanksgiving feast, Morgan Spurlock decided to take the matter into his own hands. Maybe the lawyers couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that McDonald's can be lethal, but then they probably weren't willing to eat nothing but McFood for 30 days. Well, Spurlock was. And lucky for us, and for the fat land we call America, he filmed it.

He starts out by consulting three physicians and a nutritionist, the same professionals who will track his progress and health over the course of the month. They all say his starting health is above average for someone his age. They also all say he will most probably gain a bit of weight on his McDiet, but that's about it.

Spurlock gets his first chance to super size a meal on the second day of the experiment. After taking about 45 minutes to eat his whole super sized happy meal, he then proceeds to vomit out his car window all over the parking lot. Yum. As he trudges through the 30 days, it's pretty clear that the diet is doing a lot of damage to our young filmmaker's health. However, along with obvious repercussions -- like rapid weight gain -- Spurlock experiences some surprising side effects. He becomes depressed and lethargic between meals, but feels really good when he's eating. The doctor tells him this describes an addiction. An addiction to fast food? Kinda gross, huh. Don't worry, it gets worse. Spurlock's girlfriend confirms that he has indeed become lethargic. So much so, that when he does actually have the energy to have sex, she has to be on top. She also adds that, while he's still good at it and everything -- her words, not mine -- he is having a little trouble…um…getting it up. Didn't think a Big Mac could do THAT to you, now did ya.

Okay, so now the serious stuff. In just a month, Spurlock gains 25 pounds, his cholesterol increases sharply, and he suffers severe liver damage. In the last few days, the doctor tells him that his liver resembles an alcoholic's and if he continues the diet much longer, it could entirely wipe out his liver. The results have everyone shocked. By the end of the film, the doctors are begging Spurlock to discontinue the diet.

So, what did the film accomplish other than destroying Morgan Spurlock's health? Well, it won the top documentary director award at the Sundance Film Festival. Then, six weeks later, McDonald's took the "super size' option off of its menu. Furthermore, McDonald's "Go Active' adult happy meals were introduced the day before "Super Size Me" was scheduled to open. McDonald's is also currently featuring ads where children talk about the healthy options they can get at their favorite fast food chain. Personally, I think it's pretty clear that McDonald's took action because of the film. In the end of the movie, Spurlock specifically asks the restaurant to take the super size option off the menu and to give him a choice besides fries and fries. The fast food chain, however, denies any connection between its recent changes and the documentary. Spurlock doesn't claim that his film is the only reason for McDonald's newly found concern for nutrition, but he does believe the film's launching helped speed up the process of bringing healthy alternatives to the menu.

Here's what I took from the movie "Super Size Me." Spurlock's documentary was not just an experiment in determining the dangers of fast food or discovering the state of physical health in our country. It certainly was those things, but it was more. "Super Size Me" was an experiment in filmmaking and activism. This teeny tiny movie with its great big voice has made an enormous impact. Corporate America is not an easy thing to change. There's a reason the McDonald's menu has been filled with fat, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol for years and years. It's because that's what people will pay for. Why should the fast food industry take into account "corporate responsibility' when its interests are at stake? (These interests, of course, being profits.) But Morgan Spurlock was somehow able to scare a major corporation into changing. That's huge.

One relatively unknown man, armed with a low budget and a video camera, was able to make a highly popular film, send an incredible message, change the fast food industry, and most importantly, educate. Spurlock proves that if you give yourself a chance, you can give yourself a voice. And if you give yourself a voice, you've got all the power in the world. That's what activism's all about. In that sense, "Super Size Me" may be turning out to truly be "a film of epic portions.'
Suemheda Sood, 19, is a student at the University of Virginia and an intern at YouthNoise.com
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