Health Sciences Institute e-Alert
September 21, 2005
It might go something like this:
“I was feeling really, really sick and unhappy. Started eating. Feel great. I feel really good now. I feel so good it’s crazy.”
The word “eating” is the giveaway that this line isn’t spoken by a junkie; it’s spoken by a man who has eaten way too much fast food. The man is Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker who produced and directed “Super Size Me,” which I finally saw this past weekend.
If you haven’t seen or heard of this movie, here’s the nutshell: A healthy young man eats nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. Pretty simple. But it’s not just footage of a guy indulging in a junk food binge. He also reveals some surprising facts about how American’s eat, along with useful insights for a nation that needs to get back on track to better dietary choices.
Feeding the brain
One of the most striking aspects of Spurlock’s adventure is illustrated by his quote above. He develops symptoms of addiction a little over two weeks into the diet. And it isn’t just his imagination.
In an interview with Neal Barnard, M.D. of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr. Barnard notes that a typical serving in a fast-food restaurant is loaded with “addicting components.” For instance, cheese proteins contain mild opiates. And when a cheeseburger is washed down with a soda, you’re adding the addictive powers of sugar combined with caffeine.
If this has a profound effect on a full-grown man, imagine what it can do to a child. As Dr. Barnard puts it, a 12-year-old brain is no match for these foods.
A 12-year-old liver doesn’t fare very well either.
On day 18 of Spurlock’s diet, one of the three doctors who regularly monitor his vital signs tells him that his liver has become “sick” and advises him to stop the diet. This neatly parallels another sobering moment in an interview with William Klish, M.D., head of the Department of Medicine at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Klish cites a study in which biopsies conducted on the livers of obese children show that about half have scarring of the liver; an indication of fibrosis.
Dr. Klish puts it bluntly: If their diets don’t change, their livers will eventually fail.
Wishing and hoping
Spurlock says, “If current trends continue, one out of every three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.” And a trip to a junior high school lunchroom reveals why current trends ARE likely to continue.
This segment of the movie is chilling. Several students happily show the items they’ve chosen for lunch that day. By and large the choices are a train wreck. One young girl’s tray contains two packs of potato chips, a pretzel, a candy bar, and a soft drink. After watching this scene, you’ll have no further questions about why so many of our kids are diagnosed with ADHD, obesity and eating disorders.
Spurlock interviews a woman who represents the food service company that provides the lunch offered to the children at this school and hundreds of other schools nationwide. She says, “We’re hoping that through nutrition education the students will learn to make the right food choices without restricting what they can purchase.”
I love the “we’re hoping.” Meanwhile there’s certainly no restricting going on. This company provides hot lunches that include French fries, pizza, snack cakes, candy bars, potato chips, soft drinks, etc. School administrators generally turn a blind eye to the actual choices the kids are making.
Putting the apple in Appleton
But it’s an entirely different story at Appleton Alternative High School in Appleton, Wisconsin. Appleton is a school for students with truancy and behavioral problems. The cafeteria nutrition program - provided by Natural Ovens of Manitowoc, Wisconsin - features fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, a minimum of sugar, and all of it is prepared without any frying, chemical processing, dyes, preservatives or canned goods.
A social worker tells Spurlock that once they established this nutrition plan, started providing bottled water, and got rid of candy machines and soda machines, they saw a major change in the kids. And this dietary program costs about the same as any other school lunch program.
When Spurlock asks why all schools aren’t doing this, Paul Sitt of Natural Ovens Bakery explains that snack food and soda companies are currently making huge profits from public schools. Just try telling reps from an international food giant that they can’t sell their products at your school anymore. The resistance is enormous.
A taste of McReality
With “Super Size Me” Morgan Spurlock found a clever way to deliver the message that U.S. citizens, as a whole, are in terrible physical shape. And part of the solution is simple: Eat well.
I should mention that as interesting as the movie is, it made me a little queasy to watch a man ruin his health with junk food. (Following the McDiet with a detox diet, it took Spurlock eight weeks to get his liver functions back to normal, and more than a year to lose the 24.5 pounds he gained.)
Also, the style of this documentary is somewhat casual, so if you find coarse language or frank talk about bodily functions offensive, it may not be your cup of tea.