TCS Daily

That's Entertainment

By Duane D. Freese - March 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Get ready America. You are going to see more of Morgan Spurlock than you ever desired. Even before Spurlock's movie, Super Size Me, has hit the streets on May 7, he appears to have morphed it into a reality television show on the cable channel FX.


Most film reviewers have summarized Super Size Me as Spurlock eating nothing but food from McDonald's for 30 days and gaining 27 pounds while raising his cholesterol and making himself sick. His new TV show, called 30 days, according to The New York Times, will follow a similar format of having people spending 30 days doing something they normally wouldn't do, such as a "Christian living as a Muslim, a wealthy person living in poverty or a prosecuting attorney spending 30 days in jail."


The show is bound to be entertaining. His experiment in self-indulgence was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, where Spurlock won the director's award. It became a standing room only event at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., where I saw it. Indeed, Spurlock is fond of quoting George Bernard Shaw saying, "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh or they'll kill you." So you can expect some laughs. But how much truth -- real reality -- can you expect on 30 Days based on Spurlock's performance as producer, director, author, star and guinea pig of Super Size Me?


Not much, really. Spurlock's Super Size Me was a sleight-of-weight exercise played upon a gullible audience. Because as much as Spurlock says Super Size Me is a cautionary tale about the dangers of fast food, he really performed a magic trick. He fooled people -- including many an uncritical film reviewer -- into seeing something that really didn't happen. At least, not the way they thought.


The real mystery in the movie isn't that Spurlock gained 27 pounds eating fast food -- it's how he gained 27 pounds at all.


I called Spurlock's publicity people for the logs of what he ate. Although Spurlock made much in the movie about McDonald's not responding to his inquiries, his own people ignored mine for days, until I finally was told the logs would not be available until after the movie comes out.


Why not now? Would doing so somehow hurt the buzz about the film?


As they wouldn't answer other questions either, that left me to my own devices and what was in the movie.


Spurlock was shown at the start of the movie as a 6 foot 2 inch, 185 pound male who had exercised regularly before his experiment at McDonald's.  Even an inactive guy would normally need at least 3,300 calories just to maintain weight. His doctors at the start of the movie tell Spurlock that he needs only 2,500 calories to do so. That's a bit strange in itself. But more about that later. Let's accept the lower metabolism. Spurlock still needed 75,000 calories over a month to maintain his weight.


To gain just one pound, a person normally needs an extra 3,500 calories a day. Spurlock says he gained 27. So, 27 times 3,500 plus 75,000 gives us 169,500 that Spurlock needs to eat over the month. That's 5,650 calories a day. In his first week, though, Spurlock claims he gained nine pounds while eating just 4,986 calories a day. Curiouser and curiouser. But let's go along and say he could defy physics and gain that much with 4,900 calories a day. He still must eat 147,000 calories for the month.


Where did he get those calories?


I looked at the McDonald's menu. Super sizing the 20-piece Chicken McNugget twice a day would give you 117,600 calories. Throw in a Big Breakfast with hash browns and a large orange juice and you get a total of 150,300 calories.


Only, Spurlock said he didn't do that. It would have merely made his experiment look like a case of gluttony, no different than eating three Thanksgiving meals a day.


To keep people interested in what he did, Spurlock had to perform a little magic. So he set up "three simple rules" for his experiment to make it look like he was doing something close to normal:


"1) No options: he could only eat what was available over the counter (water included!); 2) No super sizing unless offered; 3) No excuses: he had to eat every item on the menu at least once."


Spurlock super-sized only eight times. At maximum, that's 15,680 calories. Having each of the other entries on the menu as a large meal would add 71,269 calories. And having each of the breakfasts, even with hash browns and large orange juice, he adds only 24,776 calories. That's 111,725 calories, 36,000 short of the minimum he himself claimed he was eating. Where did the rest come from?


Answer: McDonald's sells desserts. That's one trick. Remember. Spurlock says he tried everything on the menu at least once. McDonald's has 34 different types and sizes of desserts, from a 45-calorie child cone to a 1,150-calorie 32-ounce triple thick chocolate shake. The average calories: 533, or 16,019 for a month of sundaes.


But even that leaves him more than 20,000 calories short of 4,900 calories a day. So, how could he make that up? Well, he could eat two desserts a day. And he could also add a 340-calorie cinnamon roll to his breakfast.


So, if you eat two desserts a day, a cinnamon roll for breakfast, a big breakfast, lunch and dinner, you'll gain weight. Surprise? This isn't an experiment; this is a spoof -- on you. McDonald's is guilty of offering variety.


Only, I suspect Spurlock performed even more trickery.


Sandy Szwarc, a registered nurse and certified culinary professional who has written often for Tech Central Station on nutrition and health issues, told me how Sumo wrestlers will fast to gain the weight they need before a wrestling tournament. Fast to gain weight? Yes. Why? Because when you start eating normally again, the fasting leads to the rebound effect -- a sharp weight gain to a higher weight level as a result of a lower metabolism. It is the body's defense against starvation. And nobody says Japanese food is unhealthy.


Did Spurlock do that? There are hints in the movie. One of his doctors giving him his first exam notes that Spurlock "fasted" before taking it to get a base level reading on his cholesterol and other health factors. He didn't fast before his other exams, though. Spurlock also threw up while eating his first super size meal. It adds to the gross out factor, but if you'd shrunk your stomach you might do that too if you forced down a big meal.


In addition, Spurlock stopped exercising regularly after he started the experiment -- supposedly because he wanted to do what average Americans do. But it served a dual purpose -- it kept his metabolism low allowing his weight to balloon.


Finally, Spurlock hasn't been able to get back to 185. Could that be because he's back to his normal weight?


Spurlock doesn't exactly lie. But he also doesn't provide significant details. One detail he did include, though, was of a Wisconsin man, Donald Gorske, who every day eats two or three Big Macs with a Coke and fries. He's done so for 30 years, including all the holidays, and his cholesterol at 140 was less than Spurlock's at the start of his "experiment."

So what is the real cautionary lesson there? That you should eat Big Macs every day? Possible, say two French nutritionists. Jean-Michel Cohen and Patrick Serog analyzed 5,000 forms of food available in France for their book, Savoir Manger, and gave a "coup do coeur" -- seal of approval -- to Le Big Mac. It was more nutritious than quiche a variety of other French food.

The fact is you can go to McDonald's and engorge and gain weight, or you can pick and choose to lose weight. People simply need to eat sensibly and exercise.

Obesity is a serious issue, but Super Size Me is pretentious, unscientific fantasy. I don't wonder that Spurlock's production company is called The Con. Anyone who takes his film seriously just doesn't get they are being scammed, and they can probably expect more of the same from 30 Days. That's entertainment.


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