For years, the food served at McDonald’s restaurants has been used as an example of all that is wrong in modern western diets – it’s simple, fast, cheap and American, and therefore couldn’t possibly be good for us. In his 2004 movie Super Size Me United States film maker Morgan Spurlock set out to demonstrate that McDonald’s food actually makes people fat and sick, using himself as a guinea pig.
The Spurlock ‘experiment’
For 30 days Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food and documented the effects on his physical and psychological well-being on film. The effects were dramatic: he gained over 11 kilos in weight; his blood cholesterol went up; fat built up in his liver; and he experienced sexual dysfunction and swings in mood. At last, here was all the proof we needed that eating McDonald’s food makes you fat and sick!
In reality it was nothing of the sort. Proof comes from scientific experiments and Super Size Me bore no resemblance to science. When conducting dietary experiments researchers are careful to control for all the factors that might affect the result. If two things change in a diet, how do you know if an adverse effect is due to one thing or the other?
Spurlock gave his audience the impression that he was testing the QUALITY of McDonald’s food. However, during his 30-day ‘experiment’ he also changed the QUANTITY of food that he ate. In fact, he absolutely stuffed himself, doubling his calorie intake. This binge was why he put on so many kilos and probably why his blood cholesterol and liver fat increased.
The fact that he was eating McDonald’s food actually had nothing to do with his weight gain. Many dietary experiments have shown that diets with widely differing composition have exactly the same effect on body weight if calories are kept constant, and physical activity remains the same. These are the things that determine whether body weight moves up or down. Spurlock actually lowered his level of physical activity during his month-long feast, presumably to ensure the results were as bad as possible.
What was Spurlock’s motive? If the intention had been to inform the general public of the facts Spurlock would have teamed up with some nutrition researchers and filmed a real scientific study into the effects of McDonald’s food. I suspect he was aware that the results would hardly have been big news.
At best, Spurlock’s movie may be an extreme case of white hat bias i.e. bias leading to the distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends. But the predetermined outcome and the misrepresentation of its cause surely pushes ethics to the limit.
Alternatively, maybe Super Size Me was just a stunt designed to generate a lot of publicity and to tarnish McDonald’s name. Irrespective of what we think about the nutritional quality of McDonald’s food, wouldn’t we all be better off if we just heard the facts?
Declaration: Bill Shrapnel has no association with McDonald’s.