Exclusive interview with Morgan Spurlock, Director of Super Size Me
[Matt Day] Super Size Me is a film the focuses on the obesity problem facing America, do you still think it’s relevant in the UK, and countries around the world?
[Morgan Spurlock] The film isn’t just about the American obesity problem, it’s about the fast food way of life that’s started in my country but has now permeated your country and countries all over the world. I’m travelling all over promoting this film and it never fails wherever I go, suddenly I feel like I’m in the middle of Kansas! Here I am in the middle of Picadilly and oh look, there’s a KFC and a McDonald’s and a Starbucks and all the wonderful things I have right back at home. Suddenly the whole rest of the world is starting to look, and be, and taste, just like America, and with that comes the problems that we have in America – obesity, and the health issues that are associated with being overweight.
[MD] Everyone knows that fast food is bad for you but…
[MS] Do we really know it’s bad! I’d have to disagree with that statement, it sounds like a McDonald’s plot statement there, that’s what they like to say “well everybody knows it’s bad for you” but do we, do we really know? For the film I went to see three doctors before I started and all three said, well maybe you’ll gain a little weight, maybe your cholesterol will go up a little, but that’s it. So I had three doctors that didn’t know I was going to get as sick as I was going to get, so you’re saying everyone else in the world does know that even though three physicians didn’t? I don’t believe that, I think that we don’t know how bad this type of food can be if we eat it regularly, is it bad enough to get a little tummy ache, or is it bad enough to get some heart disease? Is it bad enough to gain a couple of pounds, because that’s what McDonald’s loves to make the film all about - the weight gain – or is it bad enough to get liver disease, is it bad enough to get diabetes, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure? There’s a big difference here, in terms of how bad it is for you and I just think we don’t realise that, we just don’t make that association with what we eat. You’ll never hear McDonald’s say – I mean they say “what does he expect eating all that food of course he was going to gain weight” but you never hear them say “well of course he was going to give himself liver disease, what does he expect, he was eating all that McDonald’s. Of course he was giving himself heart disease, he was eating all of our food what does he expect. These are the things that we don’t really equate with our diets.
[MD] Well that’s really where I was going there, people know it isn’t good, but not just how bad, did you know going into the film just how bad it can be, even in moderation, or was it something you learned on the way?
[MS] I knew that the food was loaded with fat, I knew the calories that would be involved, and the lack of nutritional value. The food, most of it, is pretty devoid of nutritional value, there’s very little in this food that your body wants. Over the course of the movie I was eating probably and average of between 4500 and 4900 calories a day, and out of all those calories I was eating in a day I was getting less than half of the vitamins and minerals that my body needs, less than half of what my body craves and wants.
[MD] From twice the amount of calories.
[MS] Exactly, from twice the amount of calories. So once again we don’t know what we’re getting, we think we’re getting all the things our bodies want but we’re not. We’re not.
[MD] What do you think was going to happen, were you surprised by what the doctors told you initially, did you think they were underestimating the effects?
[MS] No I didn’t, I mean from my stand point if I gained 5 or 10 pounds in a month then I’ve got a movie, because you say well I gained 5 or 10 pounds in a month now multiply that over a year, multiply that over a lifetime, and here’s what’s happening to people. If my cholesterol had gone up 15 or 20 points multiply that over a year or a lifetime. For me, if you look at Super Size Me it’s a snapshot of your life, it’s a fast forward of what can happen to you in ten years, or forty years, of eating a diet that is filled with this type of food, that’s high in fat, high in sugar, high in sodium, loaded with caffeine. The problems I got, you will experience over time, or you have a good chance of it, getting high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, all these can be yours!
[MD] When you realised how bad it was getting, and all the doctors were telling you your life was in danger, telling you to stop, why didn’t you?
[MS] Well I really considered quitting, all the doctors told me to quit, my wonderful caring, loving vegan girlfriend was dying for me to stop, you don’t see in the film but I called my mom, my dad, I called friends, I called friends of friends who were doctors and they all said the same thing, they said “listen, quit, you’ve proven your point, there’s no reason for you to keep doing this.” It was a phone call to my oldest brother Craig that made me decide to keep going, my older brothers have a way of giving you really good and really bad advice at the same time most of the time. Good advice like “No, go ahead, jump off the roof. It’ll be funny” So I called him up and told him what the three doctors had said to me and he said in his wonderful West Virginia accent, “Morgan, people eat this shit their whole lives, do you really think it’s going to kill you in nine more days?” And I said, “you know what, that’s the most logical thing I’ve heard yet, no I don’t think it’s going to kill me in nine more days, I’m going to keep going” And I’m so glad I did, because if you look at the end of the film I think that’s some of the most telling information in the movie. Because in the last nine days my cholesterol improved a little bit, my liver function improved a little bit, my blood pressure cam down slightly – so was my body suddenly returning to normal, was this just a fluke? No, I mean all three doctors said that my body wasn’t going to just get back to work, so what was happening here? What happened was in the last days of the diet my body was starting to adapt, started to adapt to the food I was giving it and adapt to the torture I was putting it through, and it makes you wonder how many of us every day, who eat this way, who live this way, and think “no, no I’m fine, I’ve been living this way my whole life” but who aren’t really living, they’re just kinda surviving.
[MD] Were you amazed that you became physically addicted to the food.
[MS] Oh my gosh I was flabberghasted! The headaches… I was getting these massive headaches then I would eat the food and the headaches would go away. That’s scary, food shouldn’t do that man! This is food.
[MD] So can you still stomach it?
[MS] I can still stomach a good burger, but you know what, a good burger doesn’t come from McDonald’s or Burger King or Wendy’s or any of those places. I love a real good quality burger that’s made from fresh ground beef and really good and really great cheese and has great fresh cooked bread. I haven’t even set foot in a McDonald’s since I finished this movie.
[MD] They’ve introduced many ‘healthier’ lines since the film came out…
[MS] …wait you’re putting healthier in quotations right!
[MD] Definitely! Do you think that’s a direct result of the film?
[MS] Oh I think the film has had an incredible impact on the way they’re looking at their menu, I mean the Golden Question Mark didn’t just appear in the UK just by happenchance, it just another one of the ‘coincidences’ that they say had nothing to do with the movie. I think the film has really made them start to look at their business practices, and that’s good because that’ the whole reason I picked McDonald’s. What happened to me could have happened anywhere, I could have gotten just as sick at Burger King or Wendy’s but I picked McDonald’s because they are the biggest, they are the industry leader, because whatever they do, everyone else follows suit. Everyone follows the leader, and McDonald’s is the leader. I picked the company that I really believe could change the industry, if they wanted to, and hopefully they will, hopefully they will make steps in the right direction and they will start to do this. I think what we’re getting right now is lip-service, I think we’re getting a lettuce curtain in front of a really fat stage.
[MD] So you don’t think they really care about the healthy aspects of their menu?
[MS] Oh I think they care about it health as long as it’s good for business, and for now it’s good for them to put on the smile about how much they care, how glad they are, but the fact is there’s very few people that are still going in there to buy a McDonald’s that are buying the salads. That’s just not why people go there. What also they’re not doing is they’re not giving people all the information, I mean the salads they’re selling, some of these things you put the dressing on and half the calories in the salad are fat calories, you’re eating a salad where half of it is fat. That sounds good right?! Some of their other salads, you put the dressing on and you’re getting half of your entire day’s worth of sodium, half of your day’s worth of sodium in a salad. Yeah that’s great for the blood pressure, yeah eat up, eat that salad option they’ve got. So I think once again that people are being mislead, I think people are not getting all the information from McDonald’s.
[MD] Do you think McDonald’s have any responsibility at all to produce good food?
[MS] This is a company who’s core business is selling burgers and fries, burgers and fries are not inherently good for you, but are there ways to make better ones? If they weren’t so mass produced and they used local farmers and a lot more locally fresh cooked items then what starts to happen is you start to lose uniformity, and that’s what McDonald’s is all about. It’s no coincidence that a Big Mac in Rio tastes the same as a Big Mac in Tokyo as a Big Mac in New York as a Big Mac in London. They’re made specifically that way, with all the preservatives and the chemicals and the smells and the enhancers, this thing is made in a laboratory, it’s created just so wherever I go tastes just ike home, it smells just like home. So for them to make healthier food they’d have to get away from that business model, will they want to do that? I don’t know, but what I do think they have an obligation to do is to give their consumers all the information, and not all the information on a pamphlet you can’t find or on a website because nobody goes McDonald’s and plans their menu on a computer before they get there. What they need to do is give us all the information at the counter. So when I’m standing there and I’m looking at the board it says “Big Mac: 590 calories, 33 grams of fat, this much money” Because then you’re empowering the consumer to make an informed choice right at the point of purchase. The fast food industry is an impulse industry, it’s an impulse buy. We don’t get up in the morning and say, “you know what would be great tonight, let’s go get some Kentucky Fried Chicken” we don’t think that way, what happens is we leave work at 9 and say “Holy shit we haven’t eaten dinner yet, there’s a McDonald’s, let’s go” and you go in there because its on the fly, it’s something quick. If you’re going to operate a business that’s based on impulse buying, you, as a purveyor of foods have to provide impulsive information to your consumers, and that’s not what they’re doing.
[MD] It’s clear in the film you found it very hard to find the nutritional information, have you had people out checking up on them since to see if they’ve made the situation any better?
[MS] Oh my god, there are people all over the world checking up on them now, it’s great! And that’s what needs to happen, we need to keep companies like this in check, we need to make sure that they are doing what really is in our best interests, which I really feel for a long time hasn’t happened.
[MD] Can they ever really produce healthy food?
[MS] I guess we’ll see. So far it certainly remains to be seen.
[MD] Are there no chains in America that do have a healthy outlook on fast food?
[MS] I think what you’re starting to see now is chains pop up, because I think there is a window of opportunity now for somebody to create a fast food chain that sells good healthy food. And I’m not saying it has to be a vegan chain or anything, you want something that everybody is going to be able to go to and know that what they’re getting is quality, that it isn’t loaded with chemicals or preservatives, that is fresh and isn’t filled with fat and things that just pump up the caloric value. There is a window of opportunity, in America and around the world, for a chain to come out and in the United States we’re starting to see some that are really starting to gain momentum. I think that some of these companies are really going to start to fly over the next five to ten years.
[MD] The effects the food had on your body in the film was shocking enough, but what was nearly as bad was the way the fast food companies market their products.
[MS] Their marketing is so insidious, it’s completely revolting what they do. The way they target kids from such a young age is disturbing, really disturbing.
[MD] Do you feel there should be some regulation on when and where they should be allowed to advertise?
[MS] I think there’ve been Nordic countries, Sweden, Norway, Finland – Iceland I think – they have banned advertising to children, under the age of about 12 years old. Which I don’t think is such a bad idea, these are kids, why are we advertising to them, ets kill it. Let’s make it a much more level playing field, lets even the fight for parents. Rather than giving all this power to the corporations let’s level the playing field and make it easier for parents. McDonald’s and these companies they say “We care, we care” ok, then prove it to me, stop advertising to kids. You lead the way, lead the charge, stop advertising to the kids, get rid of the happy meals, get rid of the toys you use to get the kids into the store, rid of the playgrounds. Do things that show how much you really care about your consumers. Are they going to do that? I don’t know. But look at their mascot, the clown doesn’t even eat the food, watch the commercials, the clown never eats the food. If the clown doesn’t eat it why am I feeding it to my kids?
[MD] One of the facts listed on your website is that McDonald’s supply more toys to children every year than Toys R Us.
[MS] Yeah, isn’t that disturbing?
[MD] It’s an awful statistic. And then they get the backing of Disney every time a film comes out.
[MS] Every time. Every single time.
[MD] Is that somewhere you think the government should be stepping in and managing what McDonald’s are doing?
[MS] I do think the government really starts to play an active part in this, but part of the problem is that these lobby groups donate so much money to the campaigns of these elected officials, that the elected officials have started to get blind to the fact that they have a responsibility to their constituency and not to these corporations. That’s not why they’re elected, they’re elected for the people, and we as voters need to make sure that the people we vote for know that, that if they don’t do the things we want they’re not going ot get re-elected. And they themselves as lawmakers need to say, “you know, we need to do some things that are going to really change our country” and there are some people in Washington that are doing that, but there aren’t enough.
[MD] So do those lobby groups have the same effect on the decisions about the school food programs?
[MS] Oh absolutely. As you continue to cut funding from schools and educational budgets these people push their way into schools and make contracts with either school districts or individual schools, and the schools get in bed, make a deal with the devil. Now they are starting to become reliant on this income that is sacrificing the health of their students, which I think is an awful thing to do.
[MD] Do schools in general let the parents know what they are feeding their children?
[MS] The parents have no idea, one of the greatest things that’s happened since this movie came out, both in America and around the world, is parents walk out of the movie and they ask their kids “what do you eat at school?” and the kids say “I pretty much eat that” and the parents are like “Nuh-uh!” and they go down to the schools and they talk to the principals and they go to the school board and they say “what the hell are you feeding my kids?” I’ve been to so many meetings, right before I came here I was at a screening in New Jersey for the superintendant of schools at once of the counties, members of the school board, principals of the local schools that have junk food contracts and about 250 parents. It’s awesome, the window of opportunity that the film has opened and the dialogue it’s creating, it’s really making people think about how we need to change things, and that’s really important. I didn’t make this movie so people would walk out of the theatres saying “I knew it! Get me a lawyer I’m suing McDonald’s” I wanted people to walk out of the movie theatre saying “You know what, I need to take better care of me. I need to exercise more, I need to eat better.” I wanted parents to come out and say “I need to be a better role model to my kids, I need to cook more at home, I need to go down to my kids school on Monday morning and see what they’re feeding him because I have no idea.” These are the things I wanted to have happen, and they’re happening, so it’s pretty awesome.
[MD] You’ve managed to put yourself in a position where you’ve become a kind of representative for healthy eating.
[MS] Yeah imagine that! Suddenly I’m an expert, how did that happen?!
[MD] Is it something you plan on continuing?
[MS] Well for me it’s really important to get the message of this movie out, to get the message of what is happening in our country and around the world out to people. I’ve started taking the movie out to colleges and to high schools, to junior highs, putting it in the hands of parents and teachers and kids, and I’m going to do that for as long as I can. At some point I’m going to need to dive into another project but until then I’m going to do as much as possible to continue this dialogue of change and living an active healthy lifestyle as much as I can, because it’s something I really believe in. I grew up in a house where every night we’d sit down to dinner, and it wasn’t like we’d sit down in front of the TV, we were sitting down as a family eating a home cooked meal, something that my mom made – it wasn’t reheated out of a box – she actually cooked. So I had a great relationship not only with healthy food but also with my family, and that’s disappearing. We sit around the television and we eat fast, we eat out of boxes, so anything I can do to bring back the idea of the importance of eating well and living well, I think it’s time well spent.
[MD] So you’re not working on another film at the moment?
[MS] No, though I’m working on a TV show, it’ll be out next summer in the states, called 30 Days. Just like the movie where we dealt with obesity but in a fun and entertaining way, each week we’ll be dealing with a different social issue but in a way that makes it fun, that makes it palatable for the viewers, so hopefully we’ll create a show that has the same impact, and make people think about things in the same way as Super Size Me has.