Super Size Me Was Not Groundbreaking Journalism

Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian whose film Super Size Me attempted to expose the perils of fast food as it followed him adhering to a monthlong McDonald’s-only diet, has died from complications of cancer. He was 53.

Spurlock went on to make several other films. But nothing would eclipse the hype around Super Size Me , which catapulted him to fame and attracted an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature. If you’re a millennial like me, there’s a chance the movie, which was released in 2004, was a part of your education diet, whether in high school or college, touted as an example of groundbreaking investigative reporting. The problem is that it wasn’t.

The movie tracks a 32-year-old Spurlock from February 1 to March 2 of 2003 as he ate McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day, with no exceptions. The name of the film comes from the chain’s erstwhile supersize option, which Spurlock pledged to ac quiesce to every time a service worker offered. That happened nine times over the course of filming. (Shortly after the film’s release, McDonald’s discontinued the option, although the company insisted it was unrelated to the documentary.) In total, Spurlock gained a little under 25 pounds, experienced increased cholesterol, and had elevated liver enzymes.

None of that should have been shocking, much less groundbreaking . While the film, in my view, was well-intentioned, the ultimate premise can be summed up as: Man Eats Way Too Many Calories Every Day and Experiences Health Issues. Even in 2004, when nutrition science was in a more nascent stage, that is not a conclusion that should have rocked the world.

And yet it did precisely that for years, despite other experiments conducted not long after the film’s that called Spurlock’s conclusions into doubt. A study conducted by a researcher at Sweden University, for example, constructed a similar one-month fast-food bender and observed results that varied highly per person, with one participant even experiencing a decrease in cholesterol. More recently, John Cisna, a high school science teacher, went viral about a decade back when he said he lost 56 pounds after sticking to a McDonald’s diet for six months. The catch: He still sought to follow a 2,000-calorie diet, whereas Spurlock, who declined to publish a food log, appeared simply to eat with abandon. Again, it is not provocative journalism to show the world that consuming far more food than you should causes health complications.

To his credit, Spurlock did include some balance in Super Size Me , which, at least in part, came in the form of none other than Reason ‘s Jacob Sullum. Sitting in his Virginia office at the time, clad in a delightful red cardigan, Sullum expresses caution about moving toward a society where it becomes appropriate to “publicly hector fat people” as some do to smokers. Spurlock’s final product, after all, had a sense of shaming at its core, despite that it’s possible to eat fast food without gorging yourself to the point of lethargy. (Burned in my mind after having to watch the film for school is hearing Spurlock claim that his fast-food binge had made it so he could no longer have sex unless his then-girlfriend was on top.)

Ironically, on the subject of shame, compromising details about Spurlock’s life would continue to emerge for years after the documentary’s release, which included, among other things, that he was an alcoholic. That doesn’t explain every adverse impact he experienced while following his McDonald’s diet, but it does call quite a bit of it into question. It would seem irresponsible to make no mention of it, for example, when discussing damage to his liver.

And yet Spurlock will likely be remembered for years to come, his name inextricably linked to Super Size Me and what it purports to have exposed . His death is sad. But his legacy is a healthy reminder that skepticism is a necessary part of any balanced diet.