The more I explore Super Size Me, the more I realize the experiment was so deeply flawed in its design that it can only prove that Morgan Spurlock wanted money and attention at the expense of McDonald’s reputation (and his health* by unnaturally forcing himself to overeat.)
I’m going to wrap up my investigation of Super Size me in this blog. There is no need for a Part 3 or beyond.
After five days Spurlock has gained almost 10 pounds (4.5 kg) (from 185.5 to about 195 pounds). It is not long before he finds himself with a feeling of depression, and he claims that his bouts of depression, lethargy, and headaches are relieved by a McDonald’s meal. One doctor describes him as “addicted.” He has soon gained another 8 pounds (3.5 kg), putting his weight at 203.5 lb (92 kg). By the end of the month he weighs about 210 pounds (95.5 kg), an increase of about 24.5 pounds (about 11 kg). Because he could only eat McDonald’s food for a month, Spurlock refused to take any medication at all. At one weigh-in Morgan lost 1 lb. from the previous weigh-in, but it was hypothesized by a nutritionist that he had lost muscle mass, which weighs more than an identical volume of fat.
Spurlock’s weight gain isn’t all body fat. Much of it is fluid.
Even if he typically ate a lot of carbohydrates, giant burger rolls, fries, and sugar-sweetened soft drinks, eating more of these foods than he normally eats would cause an extreme calorie imbalance. The extra calories from carbohydrates cause water retention because they’re stored as glycogen.
Glycogen is a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles and liver. Glycogen holds onto water, —about 2.5 – 4 grams of water for every gram of glycogen. If he’s sensitive to sodium and considering he’s eating too much food, he is also getting too much sodium. That too would cause water retention that would contribute to his rapid gain.
Just as it’s practically impossible to lose 10 pounds of body fat in 5 days, it’s no easier to gain that quickly either. Large fluctuations in weight over a short period of time are usually caused by losing or retaining fluids. The one pound loss that his nutritionist speculates to be loss of muscle is much more likely, representative of the fluids in his body.
That’s not to say he isn’t gaining body fat and won’t gain quite a lot by the time his experiment is over.
- He is forcing far too many calories into his body – a body too small to handle all those calories consistently day after day.
- He has reduced his level of physical activity which further reduces the calories his body needs for fuel.
- Weight gain is inevitable and not because McDonald’s food has special properties that make people fat, but rather he’s forcing himself to consume way too many calories.
I am highly skeptical of Spurlock’s claims of bouts of depression, lethargy, and headaches are relieved by a McDonald’s meal.
This seems like pure conjecture. Eating so much of the same foods and way too much could cause lethargy. Depression and headaches might be caused by the thought of having to keep it up for 30 days. I’d like to see some scientific proof behind his claim of developing a physiological need for more. It’s anecdotal.
It’s probable that his vegan girlfriend is totally disgusted by what he’s eating and sharing her uneducated (she’s neither a scientist or a medical professional) observations which could certainly unconsciously influence how he feels. I also don’t doubt that forcing himself to eat a vastly different diet in huge amounts would cause him to feel extremely unwell. I just can’t buy his claim that “eating more McDonald’s food relieves his depression, lethargy and headaches.”
Addiction is a word that’s losing its meaning.
The word and all it implies is being hotly debated by scientists and medical professionals. The term is used too loosely in this context to have any real meaning at all.
- What medications was Spurlock taking before he began his experiment?
- Would taking medications affect the outcome?
- Did he want to exacerbate the negative effect McDonald’s had on his health and skipping his medication would help him with that goal?
Spurlock’s girlfriend, Alexandra Jamieson, attests to the fact that Spurlock has lost much of his energy and sex drive during his experiment. It was not clear at the time if Spurlock would be able to complete the full month of the high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, and friends and family began to express concern.
No surprise here! He’s eating somewhere around 5000 calories a day – far more than he’s burning. He’s eating foods, and in amounts, his body isn’t accustomed to eating. The flora in his gut hasn’t adjusted, plus his body is very busy processing all that food it can’t use. Of course his energy and interest in sex will wane. He is abusing his body and not by eating food from McDonald’s, but by eating far more than his body can handle at a single meal.
In Day 21, Spurlock has heart palpitations. Consultation with his concerned internist, Dr. Daryl Isaacs advises him to stop what he is doing immediately to avoid any serious health problems. He compares Spurlock with the protagonist played by Nicolas Cage in the movie Leaving Las Vegas who deliberately drinks himself to death over a similar time period. Despite this warning, Spurlock decides to continue the experiment.
Spurlock makes it to day 30 and achieves his goal. In thirty days, he “Supersized” his meals nine times along the way (five of which were in Texas, three in New York City). All three doctors are surprised at the degree of deterioration in Spurlock’s health. One of them states that the irreversible damage done to his heart could cause a heart attack even if he lost all the weight gained during the experiment. He notes that he has eaten as many McDonald’s meals as most nutritionists say the ordinary person should eat in 8 years (he ate 90 meals, which is close to 8 years of eating it once a month).
5000 calories a day is a lot. People who eat 5000 calories build up to that level and as they build up so does their body size.
The larger body uses more calories to sustain itself and to fuel any physical activity. The larger body also has more muscle to support its weight and the muscle mass is using more calories even at rest.
It’s logical to believe he’s forcing himself to eat roughly 2500 calories more a day than he needs or about double.
Some excess calories you consume from carbohydrates are converted to and stored as glycogen, a complex carbohydrate, in your body. Your body stores glycogen primarily in your muscle and liver cells. Every 1 gram of carbohydrate gets stored along with 3 grams of water. According to Iowa State University, a healthy adult body can store about 500 grams of carbohydrate. Skeletal muscles store about 400 grams or glycogen, the liver stores 90 to 110 grams of glycogen and your blood circulates roughly 25 grams as glucose. This means your body is capable of storing about 2,000 calories of carbohydrates.
That helps explain what’s going on with his heart and liver. I emphasize again, how unnatural this is.
People overeat, but they don’t force themselve to overeat steadily for 30 days. Spurlock is completely ignoring every message his body is sending him to quit eating so much. Is that “science” or “something to prove”?
One thing for sure is what he’s doing isn’t an accurate way to research the effects of a steady diet of fast food. The damage to his heart and liver is because of forcing too many calories into his body, the source of the calories matters almost not at all.
* It wasn’t the food that jeopardized Spurlock’s health, It was consistently overeating for 30 days.
I won’t argue that a steady diet of fast food burgers, fries, and soft drinks is good for you. It’s not, but I will argue that fast food menu items are not any worse for you than what many people cook at home or eat when dining in traditional service restaurants, of both the small, local and big chain varieties.
Once again, it all comes down to balance and moderation.
The film, Super Size me has 95% entertainment value and 5% scientific value.