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‘Super Size Me’ Filmmaker Offers Food for Thought

Times Staff Writer

At the front of a Crenshaw High School classroom, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock recalled gaining 25 pounds and experiencing heart and digestion problems after a monthlong McDonald’s binge. The students appeared disgusted at times, but a few still munched Skittles, Ruffles potato chips and a Jack In the Box hamburger meal as Spurlock spoke.

The group of about 50 students had watched Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me” the previous week, in which he chronicled his deteriorating health after eating the restaurant’s food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 30 days.

Critics have said the film is unrealistic because nobody eats that much fast food, but in the film, Spurlock points out that nearly 25% of McDonald’s customers eat the restaurant’s food more than three times a week.

Young people, he said, have a particularly strong relationship to fast food, which is why he is touring schools. He talks to students about his film and warns them of the dangers of eating too much processed, high-fat food. By the end of the year, Spurlock will have visited nearly 100 schools and college campuses nationwide.

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He said he’s not trying to generate free publicity for his film, but rather, seeking to turn around America’s eating habits -- one classroom at a time.

Spurlock asked the Crenshaw students: “How many kids in here eat fast food once a week?”

Everyone raised a hand.

“Two times a week?”

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Hands stayed up.

“Seven times a week?” Most hands dropped, but at least five remained in the air.

“It’s not too unrealistic, because a lot of us do this,” Spurlock said. “Who goes to McDonald’s for an apple?”

“Apple pie,” one student replied.

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Fueled by concerns over an alarming increase in childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, the 750,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District is at the forefront of a national movement to provide more healthful food to its students. This year, it banned its 700 campuses from selling sugary sodas, instead offering water, fruit juice, Gatorade and milk. The district has also tightened its junk food policy, restricting certain candies and chips.

Spurlock, 34, said he supports the attempt to restrict junk food and is asking other districts to follow L.A. Unified’s example.

He is alarmed that sports and physical education programs are experiencing budget cuts on campuses across the country, yet many schools sell pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and other high-fat foods for lunch. Fast-food companies target young people with ad campaigns, he said, and he is urging the government to create healthful food campaigns or laws protecting children from junk food ads.

“We’re teaching [kids] how to be fat,” Spurlock said. “If we can get them to think about the choices they make, that’s a good thing.”

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In class, he described the health problems he experienced while simultaneously eating McDonald’s food and shooting the movie: mood swings, chest pains, heart palpitations. His body fat composition went from 11% to 18%. His blood pressure and cholesterol levels shot up. His liver became unable to fully metabolize all the fat in his diet.

He also stopped going to the gym and riding his bike during filming, to imitate people who hardly exercise and eat a lot of fast food.

“Is your health and stuff back to normal, like it was before?” one student asked.

Spurlock told the class he had “massive withdrawal” after he quit eating McDonald’s food, including sweating and shaking. He went on a detox diet after filming the movie, eating few carbohydrates and eliminating dairy, meat, sugar and caffeine for two months. He ate mostly vegetables and drank water. It took more than a year to lose all the weight he had gained, he said.

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Students asked if his sex life improved and stomach problems dissipated after he stopped eating every meal at McDonald’s.

It took a while, he replied, but he was able to function normally again in both areas.

“All these same health problems, you can have,” he said.

“That’s nasty,” said Melissa Thompson, 17.

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Mylissa Smith, 16, listened, appearing annoyed.

“By you showing us this research and telling us this research,” Smith asked, “what is the point?”

Spurlock replied: “I want people to eat better. I want people to put better food in schools for the kids.”

“I eat McDonald’s every day,” Smith said, “but now when I eat it, I see your film.”

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She continued: “So are you saying: Don’t eat it?”

Spurlock replied: “I’m saying: Eat it sparingly.”

McDonald’s Corp. spokeswoman Bridget Coffing called Spurlock’s film “a gross misrepresentation of reality [that] does a disservice to an important subject. The fact that he’s taking this misinformation to students is shameful.”

She added that Spurlock “simply gorged himself and made himself sick,” and that is not how most Americans eat.

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The corporation is making nutritional information about its food more accessible to customers by placing charts listing calories and fat grams on all tray liners. The chain also recently began offering more healthful menu choices, including fruit bowls, veggie burgers and bottled water.

Since the documentary was introduced at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it has earned $29 million. It cost $65,000 to make, Spurlock said. “Super Size Me” is one of 12 films from which nominees will be selected in the Academy Award Best Documentary Feature category.

Crenshaw student Tanyea Thomas, 17, said she eats McDonald’s six days a week because it is affordable for her single mother, who is raising four children. Thomas always orders the No. 2 meal: two cheeseburgers, fries and a soda.

In class, she asked Spurlock: “Do you think McDonald’s targets minorities and low-income people?”

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“Yes, I do,” Spurlock replied. “If you look at it, there are a lot of McDonald’s in low-income communities.” The government, he said, “has a part in preventing it. They play a part in really starting to change this.”

Coffing of McDonald’s denied that the corporation targets certain communities and reiterated that there is nothing wrong with eating fast food as long as it is done as part of a healthful lifestyle that includes physical activity.

After class, Thomas said she was concerned about eating so much fast food. Before watching “Super Size Me,” she said, she didn’t know how harmful it was. “As young adults, we follow patterns,” she said. “We don’t have anybody to say, ‘Look, it’s unhealthy.’ ”

She approached Spurlock and asked him how to change her eating patterns.

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The key, he told her, is that she already is thinking about her food choices. The next time she visits McDonald’s, he said, she can tell the clerk: “I’ll have small fries, or I’ll have water.”

After thanking him, Thomas said: “I’m going to go home ... [to] cook.”


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