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June/July 2004
Sizing up with a Month of McDonald’s
The Satya Interview with Morgan Spurlock


Photo by Julie Soefer
About the Competitive Enterprise Institute: The “Full Service” Approach

As of this writing, the featured story on the home page of the Competitive Enterprise Institute ( is “Debunk the Junk: Soso Whaley’s McDonald’s Adventure.” Not the most subtle project of a corporate-friendly NGO. The following is the mission statement of CEI:

“The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government. We believe that consumers are best helped not by government regulation but by being allowed to make their own choices in a free marketplace. Since its founding in 1984, CEI has grown into a $3,000,000 institution with a team of nearly 40 policy experts and other staff.

“We are nationally recognized as a leading voice on a broad range of regulatory issues ranging from environmental laws to antitrust policy to regulatory risk. CEI is not a traditional “think tank.” We frequently produce groundbreaking research on regulatory issues, but our work does not stop there. It is not enough to simply identify and articulate solutions to public policy problems; it is also necessary to defend and promote those solutions. For that reason, we are actively engaged in many phases of the public policy debate.

“We reach out to the public and the media to ensure that our ideas are heard, work with policymakers to ensure that they are implemented and, when necessary, take our arguments to court to ensure the law is upheld. This “full service approach” to public policy helps make us an effective and powerful force for economic freedom.”
About Soso Whaley

From the CEI website: “Soso Whaley is an adjunct fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. As owner of Literary Llama Productions and Zoomobile, Ms. Whaley has devoted her life to teaching people of all ages about the necessity of developing a more educated and symbiotic relationship with animals. Her work frequently brings her into conflict with animal rights groups such as PETA, as she frequently voices her opposition to their policies. In addition to her past work on a radio talk show, Ms. Whaley currently produces and hosts two cable TV programs, Creating a Healthy Environment and Camo Country Outdoors Show.”
Where’s the Beef?

According to PRWatch, an advocacy group that reports on the public relations industry, former CEI policy analyst Alexander Volokh penned an Op-Ed in the mid-90s criticizing proposed anti-smoking legislation by a “health-obsessed government.” While he admitted that efforts to discourage smoking “may further the cause of health,” Volokh concluded that “there are things more valuable than health.” Volokh opined, “Perhaps, in the fine tradition of civil disobedience championed by Thoreau, we should even think of smoking as a civic duty.” To read PRWatch’s critique of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other PR outfits, see their “Impropaganda Review” at

Super Size Me: Before it even hit the screens for commercial release on May 7, everybody was talking about this documentary and its director. While watching TV in a post-Thanksgiving food coma, Morgan Spurlock learned about two teenagers suing the fast food industry for their obesity. Their claims were rejected because they could not prove that their health problems were directly related to their diet. That’s when Spurlock got an idea: if fast food is so harmless, what would a month of eating only McDonald’s do to a healthy, active 30-something year-old? Before embarking on his McDiet, Spurlock had a full medical exam and consulted his doctors on what the diet would do to his body. His physician, cardiologist and gastro-intestinal specialist all said he’d gain some weight and his cholesterol would go up.

With a camera documenting his every bite, Morgan Spurlock ate three meals a day exclusively from the McDonald’s menu (even drinking only the Dannon brand spring water they sold). There were a few other rules: When asked if he’d like his order “supersized,” he had to say yes. He also limited his exercise to that of the average American: He couldn’t walk more than 1,000 steps a day and kept a pedometer to keep count. Within 25 days, he gained 25 pounds, was lethargic and depressed, had an ‘I can’t breathe, I’m having heart palpitations’ night-fright, and had his doctors and vegan girlfriend begging him to get off the junk food because it was turning his liver into foie gras.

When Super Size Me screened last fall at the Sundance Film Festival, tongues wagged and fingers pointed. While denying the film’s existence and reminding people that it’s up to them to make good food choices, McDonald’s quietly began phasing out its “supersize” option and introduced a healthy “happy meal” for adults with a salad, water and its own special trinket to encourage exercise: a pedometer. They even responded to an embarrassment also reported in the film—that some of their salads were more fattening than a Big Mac—and began serving less fatty salad dressings.

Super Size Me stirs controversy everywhere it goes. Saying it “disparages” fast food, MTV and VH-1’s parent company Viacom banned an ad and coverage of the film scheduled to air during Memorial Day weekend. After opening to record box-office draws for a documentary film in Australia, the CEO of McDonald’s Australia publicly called Spurlock “stupid,” and is airing ads to counter some of Spurlock’s claims.

A week after its U.S. opening, Catherine Clyne caught up with a strapping, boisterous Morgan Spurlock to discuss some of the serious aspects of the film and how he hopes it might help things change for the better.

I’m sure you had certain ideas going into it, but while making Super Size Me, what really shocked or surprised you?
The scariest point for me was [learning about] the state of school lunches in America. We feed our kids junk. It’s a combination of things, like the No Child Left Behind Act, which holds states accountable for test scores. In order to get kids to pass, they cut out other programs they can’t afford or say they aren’t as important, like physical education and health and nutrition education classes. In the meantime, they are also cutting budgets of the boards of education so the money for food programs gets smaller and smaller, and they have to make up for it. They do that either through partnering with a company, like Sodexho, or making their own deals with food and beverage—soda and candy—companies. It’s so disturbing to me because our priorities are in the wrong place. We’re educating the kids in the classroom yet we’re abandoning them in the lunchroom.

What are we saying? Reading, writing and math are all really important but physical education is nothing, you don’t need to exercise. Understanding what you should eat and why—no, that’s not important. It’s great to have french fries and ice cream and soda and candy and chips and Ding Dongs and pretzels; this is really good for you. That’s the foundation we’re giving our kids, from between the ages of five and 18.

And they say it’s the parents’ responsibility [to teach kids about healthy food choices]. You know what? The last time I checked, there aren’t any f*cking parents in the schools.

Teachers have now become surrogate parents.
So shouldn’t teachers be setting positive examples? Shouldn’t these be the role models outside the home for those 13 years? Shouldn’t this be the place where we teach them to eat and live well and build a healthy lifestyle that’s going to help them later in life? Rather than surround them with all this junk food, saying kids need to be able to make good choices? You don’t give a kid a choice between ice cream or asparagus, because what’s the kid going to take?

Well, they’re not being taught to make choices.
Because we’re not giving them a choice. Schools are the one place where we should really be preparing them for the future and we’re not.

You’ve made a parallel to the tobacco industry in how people are suing the food companies for obesity-related problems. What about the marketing of fast food directly to kids?
The marketing to kids is a huge issue, but you don’t have to smoke. You have to eat. Period. So the comparison ends when you get to that. People talk about putting “sin” taxes on a lot of junk food. I’m not a big fan of that unless in some way it is put upon the food companies to have them market appropriately. Because here’s the thing: McDonald’s spends $1.2 billion a year [on advertising]. I mean, the kids in the film couldn’t identify Jesus, but they all knew Ronald McDonald. What if we require companies that sell junk food to put one half of one percent of their budget into a pool to be used for health education? For a company like McDonald’s spending $1.2 billion, that’s $6 million already for this advertising pool. The yearly budget of the [Five-a-day Green] Vegetable campaign is $2 million. So already, we’ve tripled their budget. Think of all the money, if all companies had to do that. On Saturday mornings, you could [air] commercials with Justin Timberlake, where instead of him dancing around eating McDonald’s, he’s out running and saying ‘Man, I love to run! And carrots are great! This is the best carrot I’ve ever had in my life! You should eat carrots too!’ We need to start advertising this type of lifestyle to kids.

And once again, parents need to set a good example. Parents, if you eat out four, five, six days a week and you don’t exercise, what’s going to happen to your kids? You pass down bad habits.

You obviously have a sort of mission with this film. What do you want your audience to leave with after seeing it?
I want people to walk out of this movie and say ‘I need to make better choices. I need to start examining how I live, to take more responsibility for my life.’

I want people to think about getting out of this mechanical process of eating. Seventy-five percent of fast food purchases are impulse buys—you’re driving down the road and you’re like, ‘I’m a little hungry. Look, there’s a Wendy’s!’ and you go and order the food. You don’t even get out of the car, they hand it to you right through the window. I want people to start thinking about what their food is going to do them, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

You need empowered parents to walk out and say, ‘I’m going to be a better role model. I’m going to start taking better care of myself and start cooking at home. I’m going to start teaching my kids.’ Because that’s where I learned: around the dinner table. My Mom cooked dinner every day. She worked all day and she made time to cook because it was important to her. It’s not like I’m saying moms need to get back in the kitchen where they belong. Fathers are the same way. Parents need to share the responsibility of cooking for their kids, educating their kids about food. Because when you sit around a dinner table, with the TV off, you can talk and learn about food. That type of education is missing today. We’re a fast food culture, we live through the drive-thru. I mean, 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. What a coincidence, 60 percent of Americans get no form of exercise. These go hand in hand.

And parents need to stop catering to their kids’ whims. A kid says, ‘I don’t want that. I only want this.’ You know what my mom used to say? ‘Tough shit. This is what you get for dinner.’ If you keep giving in, kids won’t develop the flavor for [healthy foods]. You have to start them at a young age.

And in the schools?
Parents should see [for themselves] what their kids’ schools are serving. They should get involved—to get the junk food out of the schools, to make sure their kids have phys ed and health education programs. It’s up to parents to make sure that these things happen.

And I want corporations to say, ‘We have a responsibility’—to quit putting the onus on consumers. If you feed 46 million people a day, like McDonald’s does, you have a responsibility to help educate them about making proper choices. Especially when we live in a time when there’s no health in education, no physical education. You owe it to them to do this.

I think one of the more revealing moments in your film is that initially, your doctors had no idea what a McDonald’s diet was going to do to you and were shocked by how negatively it affected your health. After witnessing your experience, have your doctors changed the way they think about fast food and how they advise their patients?
That’s a question you’d have to ask them. I don’t know. They were all so surprised by this, especially the impact on my liver—that a high-fat diet would cause my liver to get so sick and put me on a path towards having Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) Syndrome, which leads to a hardening of the liver.

What did you expect?
I had no idea. I mean, come on. I had three doctors telling me maybe I’d gain some weight, maybe my cholesterol would go up a little. Even if my cholesterol went up [only] ten points in a month—that’s 120 points in a year.

I knew something was going to come out of it somehow. If nothing had happened, that would have been the greatest [thing] for McDonald’s: you can eat all you want and be fine.

When you were experiencing serious health problems that could be irreversible, how did you feel?
I felt terrible. I got really scared. Week three was a very scary point. You know, I had three doctors telling me to quit; my girlfriend’s telling me to quit; all three doctors were like, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen to you.’

Aside from your brother’s logical observation that people eat that kind of stuff all the time and don’t drop dead, what made you hang on?
It was him. Everyone told me to quit, but he said, ‘People mistreat their bodies for years. [Is it going to kill you to keep going for] nine more days?’ Could something bad have happened? Easily; and luckily it didn’t. I was very fortunate.

Have you heard about Soso Whaley, a New Hampshire woman who went on her own fast food diet to debunk the claims you make in your film? She ate McDonald’s every day for 30 days and lost ten pounds.
Yeah, Soso Whaley. What a coincidence that she’s [affiliated with] the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based group that lobbies on behalf of the food, tobacco, and petroleum companies. [See Sidebar.] A few years ago when Congress was passing new legislation about smoking, [to] improve our country’s health, the Competitive Enterprise Institute put out [an Op-Ed advocating smoking and] saying that some things are more important than health [see Sidebar]. That’s who she’s allied herself with.

Some things are more important than health. What’s more important than health, than the health of your kids? Freedom? Is consumerism more important? Profitability? You tell me. I don’t get it.

Here’s the other thing that I love about her: What are the two things she did over the course of the whole month? She said, ‘I’m eating less and I’m exercising; I feel great.’ Wow! That’s genius! The two things no Americans do—eat less and exercise. We make bad choices on a daily basis. And plus, Soso Whaley came into this diet weighing 178 pounds and she’s five foot-four [see Sidebar]. Come on, this is a woman who is clinically obese and any time she eats less and exercises she’s going to lose weight. She probably added ten years to her life by doing that.

Do you have any potential lawsuits facing you?
A company like McDonald’s would never come after us—they wouldn’t even talk to me—but now they’re defending themselves on the news. It’s like, what more could I ask for than their coming forward now trying to defend their food as being quote-unquote healthy?

What does Super Size Me offer vegans and health nuts who may not set foot in a fast food joint but are concerned with health issues?
I think it reinforces a lot of things that some may already know about proper or poor [food] choices. I’m not saying you should never go there, never eat this food. I still love a cheeseburger; I love a good steak now and then. But it’s something that I eat rarely, probably once a month.

Yeah. But do you eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger?
I said I like a good cheeseburger; one that’s fresh and actually tastes like meat; something that wasn’t made in a factory a thousand miles away. If any of your readers actually eat meat, they should get a McDonald’s hamburger some time, scrape everything off and eat the patty by itself, which is one of the most odd tasting things—it tastes like some sort of meat flavored thing that isn’t really meat.

Is it really meat? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] It tastes so odd. Then make yourself a cheeseburger at home with fresh ground beef and see what that tastes like.

Even the veggie burgers—
That they put this goopy smoked mesquite BBQ sauce on top of—it’s horrendous! Here’s [another] thing for your readers: on the McDonald’s website, if you look at the nutrition chart, on the very bottom in fine print it says McDonald’s can in no way guarantee that [any] of their products don’t contain any meat. Even if it’s the water or vegetables—they can’t guarantee there’s no meat in it. [See below.]

How much of an impact did Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation have on you?
It was definitely a reference that I used throughout the making of the film, a great book and companion piece. His book really deals with the inception and the creation of fast food, where I think mine deals more with the back end—after you take it home, what happens to you.

What’s cool about your film is you maintain a sense of humor throughout.
You know, I don’t like to be preached to. I didn’t want to make a film that told people what to do. It’s up to you; I want people to make their own decisions.

You’re probably very aware of the animal suffering that sustains the fast food industry. Did you purposely leave that out of your film?
That’s just not this movie; this film deals with the impact of our fast food lifestyle on us. To learn about that, read Fast Food Nation; read John Robbins’ books, which are great.

Aside from commercial theaters, what are your plans in terms of getting the film out there? Any plans for stuff like home screenings?
It’s coming out on video later in the fall. This fall we’re going to do a college and school tour; I want to get it to high schools, to principals, educators, students, parents, that’s really important for me. Then it’ll air on Showtime next spring. It’ll get out there and hopefully continue to have an impact. People who see the film are really affected by it. I just hope that it gets out to as many people as possible.

So what’s your optimal audience?
For me, I think this is something that everyone in our country should watch because in some way, it will affect you; whether it reinforces what you already believe, or sheds some light on something that you thought but were unsure about, it’ll have an impact.

To keep up on the Super Size Me controversy, visit


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