Eating in America ("I [don't] feel [so] good!").


Don’t mind the brackets. There’s just a little bit of James Brown in the title.

Because Dan and I are great connoisseurs of irony, we decided that we’d have a McDonald’s dinner before watching the movie, Super Size Me. We picked up the DVD, bought snacks, and sat down to watch the movie while eating.

Twenty minutes into the film, we put the snacks away. No wonder Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock won the best director award at the 2004 Sundance Festival.

Super Size Me is a documentary about the fast food industry in general, McDonalds in particular, and one man’s experiment with the American way of eating. Spurlock starts his movie by charting the growth of America’s obesity (no pun intended) over the past quarter century — and there can be no other word to describe what has been happening to America but epidemic.

America is now the most overweight nation in the world (and Canada isn’t too far behind). A time lapse map of the United States helpfully charts the development of the growing problem from a time when most Americans weren’t overweight to today where there isn’t a single state in the Union without an obesity problem. Spurlock notes that, in that period, the fast food industry has taken hold of the marketplace. Are they responsible for the epidemic?

Spurlock notes the power the fast food industry weilds through advertising and raises eyebrows about the way it has insinuated itself into the school system. One memorable scene has the filmmaker getting American tourists in Washington to recite the pledge of allegiance — something these individuals can’t do without correcting themselves. He follows this with a singalong to “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun”, something everybody rattles off with much hilarity.

Attention then turns to the attempts that have been made to sue the fast food industry over America’s obesity epidemic. Even Spurlock doesn’t seem to think much of this, since surely Americans have control over what goes in their mouths. But he notes that in one lawsuit the judge ruled that the plaintiffs would have a case if they could prove that McDonalds intended its customers to eat at their restaurants every meal of every day and if they knew that doing so would cause permanent harm. Though the case was eventually dismissed, this prompted Spurlock to wonder what would happen if he ate at McDonalds every meal of every day for a month. His experiment becomes the focus of the film.

The rules he sets out for himself are as follows: for one month, he can only consume items that are bought off of a McDonald’s menu (he cannot even have an aspirin, unless McDonald’s sells it). He must consume every item on the menu at least once. If the cashier asks him if he would like to supersize his meal, he must do so.

Furthermore Spurlock, who lives on the fifth floor of a Manhattan walk-up, decides to spend the month travelling cross-country, interviewing people and meeting a number of characters (including Mr. Big Mac, who eats his 19,000th Bic Mac on the documentary). Of course the filmmaker flies and rents a car while he does this, meaning that the amount of actual walking he does for the month drops.

To lend scientific credibility to his experiment, and also to give him some warning should he hurt himself, Spurlock has himself checked out by a cardiologist, a general practitioner and a nutritionist before starting out the campaign. These doctors monitor his progress, and provide a fair amount of drama when even they are surprised by how quickly the filmmaker’s body deteriorates during the month.

In all, the filmmaker gains over 24 pounds. His body fat, which was a very healthy 11% when he started, balloons to 18% (still below the national average, but an alarming increase nonetheless). Spurlock also experiences psychological changes, including an addiction-like response to the food he eats (likely the result of the estimated thirty pounds of sugar he consumes that month). Most disturbingly, Spurlock’s liver starts to give off signals akin to someone on a prolonged alcohol binge. By Day 21, the doctors and Spurlock’s girlfriend are begging him to get off the diet for his own health. To add insult to injury, his vegan girlfriend reports that he is no longer holding his end up in bed.

Although Spurlock gives plenty of screen time to lawyers bent on suing the fast food industry, he appears to conclude that litigation may not be the best solution. The fast food industries aren’t out to delberately make Americans fat, but their connection to the obesity epidemic is insidious and the ultimate responsibility murky. Spurlock hints that the net may have to be cast far wider. A number of fast food fans are interviewed on Super Size Me, dismissing the lawsuits as people’s stupid attempts to duck responsibility for their own choices.

But do we really have that choice when we live in nations where the fast food advertising budgets outspend the budgets of associations promoting healthy diets by a factor of a thousand? The judge that threw out the case against McDonald’s may be right in that McDonald’s wasn’t responsible for yanking overweight people through their doors and stapling them into their seats, but when we live in a society where corporate chains have all the advantages of name recognition, and offer a fast meal in an era when we are all pressed for time — when we are allowing our children to be indoctrinated in the corporate culture from the day they enter kindergarten — how much choice do we as individuals truly have?

As individuals, we have stood by and allowed a marketplace to develop that is gradually pushing out healthy choices. Our ability to fight back and live differently is being hampered day by day. When society’s choices are starting to kill us, how does one individual stand up and say ‘stop’?

Unfortunately, you can’t sue the marketplace.

The Sprawl Factor.

As an urban planner, I thought of a factor that Spurlock overlooked: urban sprawl

Part way through Super Size Me, the filmmaker embarks on a journey across America. It’s then that I realized that I was also about to go on a long journey. As I start to write this post, my laptop is across my knees as I sit in the passenger side of my rental car, leaving DeKalb on the way to Des Moines (my sister-in-law Wendy is driving). Over the next week, we will visit Lincoln and then return to Canada, clocking over a thousand miles on the Interstates.

I will love this trip. I will love sharing Christmas with Erin’s extended family. I will love the gatherings and attending midnight mass. I am already loving renting a car and driving it across one province and five states to get to the various festivities. I will love the adventure, and I will love the change of scenery. I will also little choice but to eat fast food on this trip.

Consider, on my first day, I travelled interstate-quality highways between Kitchener, Ontario and DeKalb, Illinois. I clocked about five hundred miles in nine hours of driving. I stopped for gas four times. I stopped for lunch. What were my choices for eats? At most off-ramps, options typically ranged between a McDonalds, a Taco Bell, a Burger King and a KFC. Occasionally, we would encounter a Subway, possibly a Denny’s, an Arby’s, and maybe (in Michigan) a Tim Horton’s.

Chain restaurants have grouped themselves around every exit of every interstate. They have advertising budgets that local restauranteurs could only dream of. Without spending a lot of time getting to know a locale and asking around for a good (and healther) place to eat, I’m stuck with what the chains offer. I don’t have time to dally. Moreover, the chains have a substantial advantage of predictability. A New Yorker in Los Angeles knows what he or she is going to get when they step into a McDonald’s. That’s a substantal inducement to any individual leery of risking bad food at an unknown location.

Since the 1950s, our cities have been reshaping ourselves to make it easier to get around by car. This has had some part to play in the obesity epidemic as we now walk less, something Super Size Me points out. There is no doubt that the car makes living easier and is a wonderful luxury, but the new areas that have been built around our car, most of which look like the suburban strips surrounding our Interstates, are not designed around pedestrians. People without cars find it uncomfortable — at times even dangerous — to get around. Just one more healthy choice that is being pushed out by the marketplace.

So, it’s one thing to laugh at those who would sue McDonald’s for our obesity epidemic, but it’s another to claim that those obese people upset at their conditions are ultimately responsible for their girth. We have made a number of decisions that have made healthy living uneconomical. Maybe fast food corporations are a symptom of something deeper, rather than the actual disease?

Super Size Me’s Super Sizes

Canadians are hot on Americans’ heels in the race to become the most obese country on Earth. However I was struck by a number of differences between Canada and America that were highlighted in this film, and which I encountered again while on a stop on the I-69 in Michigan.

The big difference (no pun intended) between American and Canadian fast food is its size. While Dan and I were watching the movie, our jaws dropped to see what “super size” really meant at an American McDonalds. That’s a lot of fries. Indeed, I would have to say that Canada’s “super size” ranks only as a large in the United States. Then there are all the drink cup sizes offered at 7-11s and gas station convenience stores. No more small, medium and large for our drivers; Americans now have choices ranked by fluid ounce. You can get your drinks at 12 oz, 16, 20, 24, 32 and a truly grotesque 44. Imagine filling that full of Coca Cola and drinking it all yourself?

On a stop, I bought a cup of French Vanilla cuppacino, which is basically a liquid candy bar designed to keep me alert while I make long drives. Twenty ounces was sufficient; that’s XL in Tim Horton’s terms. But I was floored to see that I could have purchased thirty-two ounces for the same price. And that’s another inducement that undermines the choice (or, at least, the resolve) to eat healthy or at least eat healthy portions.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Mr. Lewis claims that the sin of gluttony is dead — at least, in terms of the classic picture of grotesquely fat individuals gorging themselves while the hungry look on. I think C.S. Lewis would rethink his statement if he sat down at an American fast food restaurant, or got a drink at an American drinks stand.

We Canadians have two advantages that may prevent us from becoming as obese as Americans: drinks sizes of 44 ounces are less common, and we have fewer drive-through banks. But these are hardly excuses for complacency. Fast food companies could improve our health (and their profit margins) if larger portions were priced in proportion to smaller portions rather than at a discounted rate. You want a 44 ounce cup of coke instead of a 22? Don’t lecture the individual on the health issues of portion control, just charge him twice the amount of the 22. Or, better yet, sell the 22 for half the price of the 44.

In an interesting coincidence, McDonalds’ announced the elimination of its super size portions six months after Super Size Me appeared in theatres. They claimed that the documentary had nothing to do with their decision. Even so, we have a tendency to gravitate towards larger portions when we don’t need to, and our ability to make healthy choices in this corporate-dominated, car-designed continent is hampered through lack of knowledge and a profit interest to keep us making these unhealthy choices.

Morgan Spurlock deserves considerable credit for bringing these questions to light, but the only long term solutions may take years to apply, once a tipping point of Americans and Canadians realize that the decisions they’ve made as a society are killing us as individuals. The obesity epidemic began at the end of World War II, when our cities started to change. It took five decades to build ourselves into the situation we see now. It may take at least that long (or longer — it took almost a year for Spurlock to lose the weight he gained in a month) to build ourselves out.

Though perhaps we can start by throwing the fast food companies out of our schools…

The Results of My Trip

Number of Gas Station Stops: about a dozen.
Number of Restaurant Stops: Three
Number of Fast Food Restaurants Ate At: 1 (Arby’s - which, let me say, was nowhere near as good as the Arby’s I typically eat at when I eat at Arby’s in Canada. The chicken club, which consisted of deli meat, bacon and more lettuce, was nowhere to be found, and I had to make do with a breaded mass that reminded me of a poor schnitzel)
Other questionable items consumed: three 600 ml bottles of Coca Cola, two 22 oz cups of French Vanilla cuppacino, two boxes of Hot Tamales cinnamon candy — primarily to keep me alert as I drove. We also had a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns at a Denny’s competitor. But at least there was orange juice and some mushrooms and green peppers…

The benefits of having friends and family to stop at en route, although during the Christmas holidays, I consumed two turkey dinners, fettucini, salmon and an assortment of chips, cookies, candy and other items left out at various gatherings.

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