The Real Price of a Big Mac

Sometimes inspiration strikes in the unlikeliest places. After gorging himself on Thanksgiving dinner in 2002, Morgan Spurlock was watching TV with his belt unbuckled and his pants unzipped. On the news was a report about two girls in New York who were suing McDonald's because, they claimed, the food made them overweight and sick. At one point in the report, recalls Spurlock, a representative for the fast-food chain claimed its food was, in fact, nutritious. It was at that precise moment that Spurlock, who runs his own production company, says "the bells went off." He decided to make a documentary--his first feature-length film--in which he would, in an attempt to explore why Americans are so fat, eat at McDonald's three times a day for 30 solid days.

One year, thousands of fries and tens of thousands of calories later, Spurlock has an award-winning film in the can. Titled, tongue planted firmly in cheek, "Super Size Me," his documentary was a surprise hit at Sundance last week, winning Spurlock the Best Director prize in the documentary competition and drawing comparisons to the work of "Bowling for Columbine" auteur Michael Moore. With regular visits to the doctor, interviews with experts on fast food and chats with regular folk on the road, the viewer gets a front-row seat as the formerly fit filmmaker eats everything on the menu, packing on the pounds, and looking--and feeling--worse in each successive frame. McDonald's' response? The home of the Happy Meal declined to comment in the film but has released statements saying that its menu offers an array of choices, some healthier than others. Spurlock, 33, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about his wild, fattening trip since that moment of tryptophan-induced inspiration.

You ate three meals a day at McDonald's for 30 days for this film. What happened to your body over the course of that month?

My body just basically falls apart over the course of this diet. I start to get tired; I start to get headaches; my liver basically starts to fill up with fat because there's so much fat and sugar in this food. My blood sugar skyrockets, my cholesterol goes up off the charts, my blood pressure becomes completely unmanageable. The doctors were like "You have to stop."

You saw more than one doctor?

I was seeing three different doctors over the course of this, just so I would really have a fair balance between all the people so nobody could say "oh, it was doctor bias; it was physician bias." Each of these doctors was doing their own blood tests and each of the blood tests were going to three different labs so there was no way lab error could be an issue. Everything that happens to my body over the course of the film was caused by this diet. And everything that happened to my body was caused by this food that I got at this restaurant. I didn't eat anything--no gum, no candy, not even a Tic Tac--everything that I put in my mouth came from over the counter at McDonald's. Even the water. I wouldn't even drink water from outside, that way there would never be a question that "oh there was probably something in the water somewhere else when he was traveling around." I only drank bottled water from McDonald's.

How much weight did you put on?

I put on about 25 pounds in a month.

How did you feel at the end of the month?

[Laughs] I felt terrible! I felt so bad because I put on this weight so quickly my knees hurt. I was so depressed. I would eat, and I would feel so good because I would get all that sugar and caffeine and fat and I would feel great. And an hour later I would just crash--I would hit the wall and be angry and depressed and upset. I was a disaster to live with. My girlfriend by the end was like "You have to stop because I've had it." It really affects you in so many ways that I think a lot of people don't realize, very subtle little things. Over the course of the film you see my transformation, and it's not pleasant.

Why McDonald's specifically? Why not Burger King; why not Subway?

McDonald's is an icon, a cultural icon, a cultural phenomenon and nothing represents America and the American fast-food way of life more than McDonald's. The chain has 30,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries on six continents around the world. It has truly influenced how we eat, how food is made and how, really, other cultures are starting to eat. All these other food companies have started to follow suit, from franchising and how they manufacture and distribute their food, McDonald's is a trendsetter. So for me, the idea of picking McDonald's was, one, to pick it as the icon for what it represents. It represents every food, in my opinion; it represents every company. Also in my opinion it represents the one company that more than anybody else could really make a difference. McDonald's could institute change that everyone else would also follow. It could do away with super-size portions and everyone else would say, "Wow, you know what? We don't need to do this anymore either. We need to make a difference." If they would truly champion a change for healthier menu option--it would happen across the board.

But doesn't it boil down to individual choice?

I think there is a level of personal choice. In the film it's not like I'm saying fast food is the sole problem. In the film we examine a multitude of issues that cause the obesity epidemic, personal choice being one of them. McDonald's every day feeds 46 million people worldwide--that's more than the entire population of Spain. You're talking about one company that has a huge impact. I think that sure you can argue personal choice, but on the same point, if there aren't healthy menu options available, and there isn't nutrition information available to people who come there to make a choice about what they're going to eat, you're really limiting your argument on some levels. Their marketing and advertising from the very beginning really targets kids. Children from such an early age are just so washed over with the idea of the happy clown and the Happy Meals and, oh, look, there's a playground, let's go there for fun. I know kids whose parents have never taken them to McDonald's, but if you ask them what their favorite restaurant is and they'll say McDonald's--and they've never even been in one! That's pretty scary.

This sounds a lot like Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation." Did you read that?

"Fast Food Nation" is a tremendous book and was definitely something that we referenced while we were making the film. Eric Schlosser and I were e-mailing one another back and forth but never really connected, and that was not really an influence on my doing the film. I read "Fast Food Nation" when it first came out two years ago, and it's a great book.

And you had this idea over Thanksgiving in 2002?

Yeah, what an amazing year. From the time that I got the idea to us getting into the Sundance Film Festival was exactly one year. I came up with the idea on Thanksgiving. And it was the day after Thanksgiving, I was in Oregon with my girlfriend [Alex Jamieson] at her parent's house. We were leaving her parents' house, and I got the call on the phone from [Sundance's senior programmer] Trevor Groth, and he says, "Congratulations, you got into the festival." It's like, "Oh, my God, are you kidding me?" This is everything that you work for, especially in America where this is the marquee film festival; this is the top. It doesn't get any better than this in the United States. It's an amazing feeling to have your film viewed as something that people believe in and ever since we've come here the film has been so well received from reviewers to just regular folks. God, it's been such a ride.

You mentioned your girlfriend. She's a vegan, right?

[Laughs.] My girlfriend is a vegan, yeah. How ironic is that? We've been together about four years now--she was there from the beginning. She was in the movie.

How did she handle it?

She wasn't pleased. She wasn't real happy. But she was so supportive and she's always been very supportive of me and the things that I do. This was one of those things she didn't really like--she didn't really agree with me eating the food--but she was like, "Listen, I understand what you're trying to do." And she was great. She was very funny in the movie.

McDonald's has argued that the premise of your film is unfair, that its stores offer a wide array of food.

It's a very extreme route I took. That's the other argument that's made: nobody's supposed to eat this food that often, no wonder all these bad things happen. But the thing is, there are people who go to these restaurants and do eat very heavy fat-laden foods and sugar-laden foods every day. Maybe not every day but six days a week or five days a week. And while they may not get the dramatic impacts that I had--things may not happen at such an exaggerated rate--these things will happen over the long run if they don't exercise, if they're not taking care of themselves. You have to exercise a lot to run off a super-sized Big Mac meal. You're talking about 1,500 calories. You eat 1,500 calories, you have to run for three or four miles, for 45 minutes to an hour.

People have been comparing you to filmmaker Michael Moore.

Yeah, and you know, what better thing to have happen to a first-time director? But someday they will be calling Michael Moore the first Morgan Spurlock. [Laughs.]