How Morgan Spurlock and ‘Super Size Me’ changed our view of fast food

United States

Whenever I walk into a McDonald’s, I engage in a game of food arithmetic, counting the calories of the various items I might consider consuming.

I’ll order a double cheeseburger instead of a Big Mac, saving myself about 150 calories in the process (even more if I ask them to hold the cheese). I’ll opt for an unsweetened iced tea instead of a Coke. And if I get the fries —and who can resist McDonald’s fries? — I’ll always order the small size.

In the end, I’ll have a meal that’s perhaps not perfectly healthy, but it solves my fast-food cravings without doing too much nutritional damage.

And I believe I have Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” fame to thank for that.

Spurlock, whose death at age 53 was announced Friday, gave us a true understanding of what a steady diet of fast food means for our health. In making his 2004 film, he took on the challenge of eating only McDonald’s MCD, +0.07% food for a month, which ultimately caused him to put on 25 lbs. and experience liver issues.

Of course, most of the world had to know on some gut (pardon the pun) level that eating nothing but burgers, fries and the like couldn’t be good for you. But it took Spurlock, with his wily, humorous approach to filmmaking, to make it real.

Never mind that the film had its critics and that some health researchers were skeptical of the experiment’s results, according to reports. And that’s to say nothing of serious questions surrounding Spurlock’s character: He admitted years later to incidents of sexual misconduct as well as a lifelong drinking problem. The latter issue was particularly relevant to the “Super Size Me” experiment since, if the filmmaker was consuming alcohol alongside those Big Macs, it could have skewed the medical findings.

Still, it was hard to walk away from watching the movie and not have a certain gripping realization about the nutritional pitfall that fast food can represent.

I draw a line from Spurlock’s 2004 movie to the New York City policy, enacted in 2008 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that required chain restaurants to provide calorie counts for menu items. After New York put the requirement in place, other locales soon followed. Now, it feels like a standard part of the restaurant business.

But it’s not just about public policy. It’s about restaurants deciding to offer healthier choices, like fruit slices as an alternative to fries in a kiddie meal. In fact, McDonald’s removed the “super-size” option after the film’s release, though the company said at the time that the move was unrelated to the film. (McDonald’s didn’t respond immediately to a MarketWatch request for comment.)

I draw a line from Spurlock’s 2004 movie to the New York City policy, enacted in 2008, that required chain restaurants to provide calorie counts.

It’s not just me who sees the film’s legacy, of course.

“It was a very startling portrayal of what fast food did to the body,” said Shawn Rusich, chief executive of SUGO Communications, a public-relations firm focused on the food and lifestyle industries.

Steve Zagor, a New York-based restaurant consultant who also lectures about the industry at Columbia University, summarized it in starker terms.

Spurlock “put an exclamation point on what McDonald’s is,” Zagor said, likening the chain to “a human gas station” that offers tasty food and convenience, but sometimes at the expense of nutrition.

Of course, we can’t pretend the film has stopped us from eating fast food. A 2023 report from market researcher Drive Research found that 65% of people consume fast food at least once a week — and that, on average, consumers spend $ 148 on fast food each month.

It’s also worth noting that, for all the healthier options offered by fast-food chains, you won’t easily find a salad on McDonald’s menu anymore. The chain eliminated that choice a few years back, though apparently some local franchisees may still offer them.

In the end, we’re still very much a burger-fries-and-Coke nation, as Arlene Spiegel, another New York-based industry consultant, told me. Although, Spiegel did note that some consumers gravitate to ordering a burger, fries and a shake — alas, even more of a caloric overload.

At the same time, she noted that you can’t overlook what Spurlock accomplished with “Super Size Me.” Perhaps the film, made on a shoestring budget of $ 65,000, didn’t change the game entirely — but it left an indelible impression.

“What it really did was begin the conversation that you are what you eat,” Spiegel said.