Supersized Americans and the toxic food environment

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Sha'ban 16, 1425 2004-10-01


by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

As Muslims around the world prepare for Ramadan, there is also increasing awareness among non-Muslims of the effects of the sort of diet promoted by profit-seeking Western multinationals. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ examines the recent movie ‘Super Size Me’

“Everything’s bigger in America. We’ve got the biggest cars, the biggest houses, the biggest companies, the biggest food, and, finally, the biggest people. America has now become the fattest nation in the world.” So begins Morgan Spurlock’s recent film about fast food and obesity in America, Super Size Me. He goes on to report that nearly 100 million Americans are overweight or obese, which is more than 60 percent of the adult population; during the last 20 years the number of overweight and obese Americans has doubled. Health professionals have begun to cite obesity as an equal or greater hazard to human health than smoking: there are currently more than 300,000 deaths each year in America alone that are related to obesity. Recently lawsuits have been filed against fast food companies by obese Americans seeking compensation, in much the same way as smokers did in the 1990s against the “tobacco giants’.

Spurlock was inspired by one such lawsuit, filed on behalf of two obese American girls against McDonald’s, claiming that the fast food giant caused their debilitated health. Initially McDonald’s countered that the lawsuit was frivolous, that “the dangers of its fare were well-known,” and that in order to be valid the complaint had to show that eating McDonald’s food was a “substantial factor” in the girls” health problems. In determining the merit of the complaint, judges stated that “if the plaintiffs can allege that McDonald’s products” intended use is to be eaten for every meal of every day, and that McDonald’s is or should be aware that eating McDonald’s products for every meal of every day is unreasonably dangerous,” then they may be able to state a claim. To put the claim to the test, Spurlock decided to embark on a month-long McDonald’s diet, in which he aimed to eat his every breakfast, lunch and dinner at the fast food chain. The film seeks to answer several pertinent questions. Are the fast food companies solely to blame for the American epidemic of obesity? Where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin? Is fast food really that much of a health risk for consumers?

In setting up the experiment, Spurlock and his crew enlisted the services of several health and fitness professionals, who monitored his health before, during and after the month-long diet. Before beginning the diet, Spurlock, an adult male in his early thirties, was given a perfect bill of health. On every count the doctors, a fitness trainer and a nutritionist stated that his general well-being was above average, and one doctor remarked that he was starting off with “terrific” health. When Spurlock asked the doctors what the 30-day diet would do to his health, they all stated that he would probably finish with a higher blood-cholesterol level, but that his body would deal with the increased fat and salt. The rules for the diet were simple. Throughout the month, Spurlock had to: 1) eat a “super size” meal if asked; 2) eat only those foods that are for sale over the counter at McDonald’s, including water; 3) eat everything on the menu at least once in the 30 days; and 4) eat three full meals a day. Because more than 60 percent of Americans get no form of exercise whatever, other than walking occasionally, Spurlock decided to replicate that behavior, too: he consulted a walking specialist, who suggested that, “If you wanted to feel like a lot of Americans do, you’d want to limit yourself to about 5,000 steps a day.”

Although McDonald’s is present almost everywhere in the world, many people outside America may not understand how Spurlock could follow such a diet, as McDonald’s is most often associated with hamburgers, fried potatoes and soft drinks. While that may be the case in many places, in America McDonald’s sells an array of foods, including sausages, egg and pancake breakfasts, salads, fish and chicken sandwiches, and ice-cream and yoghurt, in addition to a range of types of hamburger and several meal-combinations. McDonald’s servers in America are also trained to ask customers whether they want to ‘super size” their meal, which means getting an additional amount for a few cents more. Over the years, American fast food portions have grown bigger, so what was once a small size is now a “kiddie size,” while several increasingly larger sizes have been added to the menu. American portions are now far above the world norm. For example, what would be sold as a large soft drink in McDonald’s in France is sold as the small size in any American branch of McDonald’s.

On his second day, while ordering lunch, Spurlock was asked whether he wanted to super-size his meal; he accepted the offer, according to the rules he had laid down for himself. For the next 20 minutes we see him trying valiantly to finish the meal. At first he is joking about the enormous amount of food, which includes half a pound of fried potatoes and a quart of soda, along with a McDonald’s trademark “double quarter pounder” hamburger with cheese. But half-way through Spurlock looks less enthusiastic, and at the end of the meal, in one of the more shocking scenes in the film, he vomits the meal out the window of his parked car. The scene is both disgusting and powerful, and it leads effectively into a discussion of the “toxic environment” fostered by the fast food industry. According to Kelly Brownell, a professor of nutrition and eating disorders who was a consultant for the film, Americans live in a “toxic food and physical inactivity environment,” which means that many Americans live in an environment that “almost guarantees” that they become ill and diseased, and that although not all Americans will get sick, more and more of them will.

Fast food corporations, like the tobacco companies before them, are largely aware of the ill-effects of their products, but as long as the customers keep lining up they continue to sell their toxic wares. The process of building “customer loyalty” begins at a very early age. Although the fast food and junk food industries in every country target children, in America McDonald’s is especially notorious for creating an association between children’s lives and their fast food products, by means of special “happy meals,” games and toys, birthday parties, and recreation facilities in and around their restaurants. The results have been startling: in the past 20 years the number of overweight and obese American children has doubled, and the number of such teenagers has tripled. A major health crisis is looming, according to David Satcher, a former US surgeon general: a host of debilitating and potentially fatal diseases have been linked to obesity, including diabetes, which alone affects more than 17 million Americans already. It is quite clear from the information summarised by Spurlock in this film that Americans are eating themselves to death.

Spurlock checks in with his nutritionist on day five, and she notes that his caloric intake has doubled on the McDonald’s diet, and that he has already put on 10 pounds. By the end of the experiment, Spurlock’s weight had increased by nearly 25 pounds, and all of his doctors and consultants, as well as his friends and family, had become extremely worried that he was doing irreversible damage to his body. None of the doctors had expected the strain on his liver and heart that the diet caused, and one doctor advised that he give up the diet before the month was ended. Spurlock endured, although as well as gaining weight and straining his liver and heart, he felt by the third week that he had become addicted to the fast food: one tell-tale sign was that he felt anxious and depressed when hungry, but then got a sort of high immediately after eating, largely caused by the high sugar content of most McDonald’s foods. In fact, during the course of his month’s diet, Spurlock consumed 30 pounds of sugar, as well as 12 pounds of fat. The McDonald’s diet nearly ruined Spurlock’s health in a single month: it took more than six weeks for his cholesterol and liver functions to return to normal, and for him to lose most of the weight he had put on.

In addition to chronicling his McDonald’s diet, Spurlock’s film surveys several issues related to the junk food diet and obesity, including a graphic scene in which an obese American man undergoes radical surgery to reduce the size of his stomach, and hopefully his appetite. Other parts of the film discuss how children are drawn into the world of fast food via advertising and the incursion of junk food into school lunch programmes. To make his point about the pervasiveness of McDonald’s advertising messages in American culture, Spurlock presents several schoolchildren with pictures of famous people, including a portrait of George Washington, first president of the US, and an iconic Christian depiction of Jesus Christ (whom one child identifies as George Bush): the only picture that all the children were able to identify correctly was that of Ronald McDonald, and most went beyond that, naming him by describing his actions. Similarly, a group of American women struggle through the verses of the “pledge of allegiance” to the American flag, but when Spurlock asks them to recite a McDonald’s slogan they pull it off flawlessly.

While the film is both informative and entertaining, it does leave some unanswered questions, including some that Spurlock initially set out to address, such as the question of personal responsibility. In many ways personal responsibility cannot be separated from corporate or social responsibility; even more importantly, it is difficult to separate cultural behaviors from personal behaviors. Many people in other cultures live on high-fat diets, but few in those societies show signs of obesity (this is a typical characteristic of Mediterranean cultures and cuisines, for instance). However, the amount of food one eats is a factor, and that is often culturally determined. Americans seem to over-eat, and it has become a cultural habit to eat too much, which in turn has an effect on biological and psychological development. Spurlock’s film fails to address these more complex issues.

Another point left unaddressed is the presence of growth hormones in most foods that Americans consume, especially meats and milk products. Industrialized animals are fed growth hormones to increase their productive capacity (in other words animals have more meat on their bodies, and cows give more milk, for instance), and these hormones are passed onto consumers of their meat and milk. Similarly neither Spurlock nor the doctors he questions seem to recognize the various health problems associated with soft drinks. For example, soft drinks are loaded with acids, used as preservatives and to give them “bite,” but these acids have been shown to erode teeth severely. Soft drinks have also been implicated in liver problems, such as cirrhosis, which previously were only found in the livers of alcoholics. Both Spurlock and his doctors suggest that it was the high-fat diet alone that caused his liver problems, while other evidence suggests that acidic soft drinks may also be to blame. A more common criticism that has often been leveled at the film is that if any one eats too much of anything he will get sick, and of course anyone will get sick if he eats only McDonald’s. However, Spurlock does address this point in the film, by noting that although few people would eat only McDonald’s for every meal of every day, there are people whom McDonald’s itself describes as “heavy users” and “super heavy users,” who eat the food every day or at least several times a week, so that Spurlock’s experiment is far from completely irrelevant to conditions obtaining in the real world of American society. In any case, despite these points, the film is powerful and provoking, and deserves a broad audience among those who are truly concerned about their own health and their children’s.

Super Size Me was initially shown at film festivals in April and May, where it won several awards. That was followed by a successful theatrical release during June, July and August, and the DVD was released in late September, although internet users had already started sharing the movie of file-sharing networks. Spurlock also set up a website to promote the film (www.supersizeme. com) and a weblog to chronicle his tours with the film ( Super Size Me is an important documentary on the ill-effects of the American fast food industries and the toxic environment they create, and it can be studied along with the book Fast Food Nation (previously reviewed in Crescent International) for a more detailed picture of this peril to human beings” health. However, it is likely that even as the adverse effects of fast food are revealed, people will still eat them, much as people still smoke although the poisonous effects of tobacco are well known and all packages of cigarettes and cigars are labeled with health warnings. In this type of situation knowledge is not enough; although it is beyond the scope of this article to analyse the reasons, it seems that there are cultural and psychological aspects of these addictions. Even worse, if Americans finally wake up to the ill-effects of fast foods, as many have done with cigarettes, the corporations that benefit from them will make up for the lost revenue by marketing them in the “third world” even more aggressively, as junk foods, with junk movies, account for a large proportion of the American economy.

To prevent this impending increase in cultural aggression, it makes sense for the peoples of the “third world”, Muslims included, to pay closer attention to their dietary traditions before they are completely forgotten. Already McDonald’s and other fast food giants are making inroads to the stomachs of young people the world over, gradually convincing them that a uniform diet of sugary soft drinks, fatty hamburgers and salty fried potatoes is better, and “more fun,” than locally produced traditional foods, or variations on local cuisines. And, while the nutritional pitfalls of the American toxic culture should be analyzed and duly avoided, spiritually-minded people (Muslims in particular) must also consider the metaphysical implications of eating primarily dead and heavily processed fast foods.

It can easily be observed that those who are closest to the American toxic environment are often those who are furthest from their own people’s spiritual and ethical traditions. If the old adage “you are what you eat” is even partly true, then the American toxic environment may be creating a new type of person, diseased not only in body but also in soul and mind, despite the fact that the various spiritual, ethical and moral traditions of the world have so much more to offer than modern consumerism does. A quick scan of the Islamic tradition, for instance, suggests that, even apart from concerns of halal and haram, some foods are more spiritually and emotionally beneficial than others (e.g. olives, honey, dates and milk). Other traditions promote a “macrobiotic” diet in which only natural, fresh and locally-grown foods are eaten. Whatever tradition one follows, it seems increasingly clear that the American diet spells death in more ways than one.

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