Freedom Line

And if response to Spurlock’s film is any indicator, the obsession with obesity is more epidemic than obesity itself.

Send this story to a friend
Enter recipient's e-mail:


America and Obesity: An Epidemic Obsession

By Erin Murphy

The documentary has served as an instrument for filmmakers to delve into some of history’s most salient issues and occurrences — the American Civil War, Nazi Germany, the Arab-Israeli conflict. After recent screenings at the Sundance Film Festival of "Super Size Me: A Film of Epidemic Proportions," America can proudly add to that list its most recent cause celebre: eating too much fast food.

In "Super Size Me," director-producer Morgan Spurlock put himself on a McDonald’s-only diet for a month, eating three squares a day and accepting all offers to super-size. Alas, the film’s Web site (and a little common sense) ruins the suspense by revealing the experiment’s astonishing results: he gained weight.

Spurlock says he aimed to educate the public about the obesity "epidemic," but if the promotional materials are any indicator, demonizing the world’s most popular fast food chain runs a very close second. Filmgoers at the Sundance Film Festival received "unhappy meals" conveniently combining information about obesity with details about McDonald’s, and a "Super Size Me" poster displays a bloated Ronald McDonald wearing a dollar-sign necklace. Of course, in reality, the fast food giant is currently using Ronald to promote exercise and healthier eating, particularly among children.

During his quest to identify the dangers of month-long McDonald’s binges, Spurlock also included interviews with obesity experts and fast food consumers. The panoply of conclusions Spurlock reached include such jaw droppers as "fast food is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic" and "eating fast food may be dangerous to your health." Conspicuously absent from the obesity statistics Spurlock cites is any explanation of the numbers behind them.

Studies have repeatedly pointed out internal problems with the method used for calculating obese and overweight individuals. Both are determined based on the Body Mass Index, which takes into account only a person’s height and weight. Because the BMI fails to measure body fat, muscular and athletic individuals often fall into the categories of overweight or obese. For example, critics of the standard have pointed out that according to the BMI, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, George Clooney and a majority of professional athletes are either overweight or obese. On the other end of the spectrum, elderly people with decreased muscle mass may fall into a "healthy" weight category despite obvious nutrition deficiencies. Further, at least some portion of the recent increase in "overweight" Americans is undoubtedly a product of the government lowering the BMI standard in 1998.

Others question whether weight is a reliable indicator of health in the first place, because it fails to account for an individual’s activity level. Some doctors argue that overweight individuals with strong cardiovascular and aerobic endurance are healthier than thinner individuals who get no aerobic exercise.

Not all Americans are buying into the "obesity epidemic." One law school professor, Paul Campos of the University of Colorado, is scheduled to release a book this spring examining America’s obsession with obesity and weight. The book also promises a deeper look into the imprecision of widely-quoted obesity statistics. Accusations that fast food restaurants are "coercing" children into unhealthy eating have recently been challenged as well. A New York-based marketing consulting group conducted a survey last year on children’s attitudes toward food and found that most children surveyed knew what made foods healthy or unhealthy, preferred home cooked meals to fast food, and deferred to their parents on when and what they were allowed to eat.

The obesity obsession is nothing new, which Spurlock obviously realized when he began his documentary. After all, Americans love to talk about weight, read about weight, and legislate about weight; why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to watch it emerge before their very eyes? And if response to Spurlock’s film is any indicator, the obsession with obesity is more epidemic than obesity itself. The documentary was the hit of the film festival, and both its theater and video rights have been purchased. Critics have called the film a "powerful manifesto" and characterized it as "so relevant" and "life-altering," suggesting they are as goofy as Spurlock if watching someone eat fast food for 30 days straight can alter their lives.

"Super Size Me" is scheduled for release to the general public this spring, so time will tell whether Americans really have nothing better to do than sit around and watch someone eat McDonald’s (which, itself, evokes disturbing implications about our country’s activity level). But if people really need to see someone eat fast food for a month to figure out that it’s not a good idea, then our country has much bigger problems than obesity.

Erin Murphy is a Contributing Editor with the Center for Individual Freedom.

[Posted February 12, 2004]

Return to Current Events Index