Documentaries That Lied to Your Face, part II

Let me propose a movie to you.  I’m going to do an exposé on how horrible Shell gas is for your car.  Here’s how I’ll do it.  I’ll go out and buy a used 1998 Taurus, put Shell gas in it and drive it from Seattle to Orlando and back and then back again, on and on for a month, only refueling at Shell.  I won’t talk or answer questions about the car’s history; I won’t check or ever change the oil; I won’t check tire pressure; I’ll never replace belts or filters; I’ll drive hundreds of miles on the freeway at a time in 2nd gear . . . and when the car finally breaks down, I’ll stand proudly and say, “See?  Shell’s gas will ruin your car!”

Ridiculous you say?  Well then let me ask you–what was your reaction when you saw this movie?

Morgan Spurlock shook the world when he set out and ate nothing but McDonald’s three times a day for 30 days, and his weight skyrocketed as his health plummeted.  Those that have hated McDonald’s all along rejoiced in unison, “We told you so!”  Many of those on the fence backed away from the golden arches, citing the movie as some kind of proof of the panic.  Others accepted that the movie was somehow true, but didn’t care.  Then there were those of us who cried foul.  Yet even of those who have cried foul, there’s some important things in this movie they’re missing.  Most often, someone who finds this movie to be stupid will say, “Of COURSE McDonald’s will make you fat!  He didn’t show us anything that we didn’t already know!”

But hold on a second!  Did he? Did he honestly demonstrate to us that a diet comprised entirely of food from McDonald’s is a fast track to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and early death?  Or did he inadvertently do something else?

There are so many problems with this movie, from numbers that don’t add up to questionable “experts” to shaky nutritional science, that I won’t be able to touch them all here.  Instead I think I’ll spend most of my time with what I think is its single biggest problem, which is its inability to be a reliable experiment.

So we know he’s going to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days.  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  He’s changing what he eats, even though we don’t know what his normal diet was like, exactly.  He insists he’s not a vegan or vegetarian, but since his co-habitating girlfriend is not only a vegan but a vegan CHEF, one can make a fairly strong case that Spurlock’s diet probably didn’t consist of tons of animal protien, sugar, and fat before he started filming the movie.  So that’s ONE variable: his diet changes dramatically. Please note that this is just diet change in general, and not the fact that it’s just McDonald’s; we’ll get to that later.

We don’t know how much he ate before, either.  Did he eat three square meals a day?  How much did he usually eat for each meal?  Since he does end up eating a LOT of food for each meal, it’s probably safe to bet that he ate less on a daily basis before the movie than he does during the movie.  Do any of you regularly have multiple deserts in a single setting, or a milkshake instead of a soda?  Or a regular soda for every meal, for that matter?  That’s another variable:  he drastically increases his daily portions.

Spurlock starts the movie by showing us that he’s in good health and gets more exercise than the average person in his age group.  He also tells us that the average American takes less than 2000 steps in a day, whereas a typical New Yorker will take 4-5 times that, at least.  So that he can “better replicate the average American,” he limits the number of steps he takes and will not exercise.  That’s a third variable:  he reduces his physical activity to almost nothing.

Let’s not forget that he’s dropping his own money (something like $60,000) on making this movie.  Plus he’s on the road a lot, organizing interviews with various people, all while trying to have a girlfriend and have a normal job.  Keep in mind that during production of a film, he doesn’t know how successful or not his movie will be.  That’s stress–something he wouldn’t have if he WEREN’T making the movie.  That’s a fourth changed variable:  he takes on a considerable amount of stress.

And finally, there’s the “McDonald’s only” part.  People that are considered “super heavy users” of McDonald’s eat there only three to five times a week.  Spurlock makes 21 visits a week.  That’s a fifth variable:  he eats four to five times more than the average HEAVY McDonald’s patron.

I could add in a sixth variable: time.  He makes all of these changes, which causes a severe shock to his system, and his body would need time to adjust.  It would need MORE than 30 days.  I’ve seen it suggested that several months to a year would be the minimum for reliable results.  At the end of the movie, he even mentioned that some of  his numbers (cholesterol etc.) were starting to drop!  But we’ve already got five, so let’s not count this one and give him a break.

Five variables.  He’s already set up for failure.  Or success, depending on how you look at it, since he is setting out to answer the question, “Will McDonald’s make you fat?”  You know what my guess is, based on what we have so far?  I’m willing to bet “Yes!”

Let’s not forget the fact that his results will be based on the effects on ONE participant, the numbers will come from three doctors in three specific professions and single dietician, so their measurements don’t necessarily overlap.  One each.  For a movie that’s just a movie, I guess that’s fine, but for the kind of hardcore proof of the dangers of fast food that people cite this documentary as, that’s a problem.  He even says in his movie that doctors vary on their opinions of how much fast food is okay to eat in a given amount of time, which makes it stand to reason that you find different doctors to have different approaches.  But you know what?  Let’s give him a break on that, too.  Why?  Because I’m so nice.

So all of that only illustrates how Spurlock, at best, doesn’t understand how to structure a real scientific experiment.  But at worst, he’s as smart as I think he is and has stacked the deck in his favor, guaranteeing dramatic results.  And it keeps going.

What were his “rules” for the 30 days?  I’ll list them.

1. He can only SuperSize if asked.
2. He can only eat food from McDonald’s . . . water included.
3. He has to eat everything on the menu at least once.
4. Must eat three meals a day.

What are the problems with these rules?  I’ll list them, too.

1. Meh.
2. “Water included?”  I’m surprised fewer people have jumped on this one.  What does he drink with most of his meals?  Regular sodas.
3. He has to have everything only ONCE.  First–why?  What will that prove?  But regardless, he has multiple Double Quarter Pounders.  He adds in the cookies and pies at the end, rather than swapping them out for fries.  And as I pointed out in #2, he can have WATER for most of the meals after he’s had each soda once.  But he doesn’t.
4. He has to eat three meals a day, but take a close look at his meals.  They’re all HUGE.  Could you comfortably eat that much each day?  Even if you didn’t have to?

The biggest problem his rules have is that they’re just ambiguous enough to make you think he’s forced to eat a certain way, but in reality (as in real life) he has the option to be smart or to overdo it.  He does the latter.

So let’s bring all this together, because this is already a classically-long Braden post, and I could go on for a LOT longer.  If you’re interested, take the time to watch the last part of this movie, keeping in mind that he’s altered five variables that have nothing to do with the quality and nutrition of McDonald’s food, yet the only culprit he lists is McDonald’s.  My sincerest apologies for the red, white, and blue speedo.

“In only 30 days of eating nothing but McDonald’s, I gained 24 and a half pounds . . .”

I think he meant to say, “Only 30 days into dramatically changing my diet and exercise habits amidst great amounts of stress, and doubling the amount of food I consumed in a normal day, every day, for a month, I gained 24 and a half pounds.”

None of this is to mention that the bottom line of his entire movie is to push an anti-corporate message.  Agree or disagree–it’s a pre-determined agenda.  And that arguably makes this movie propaganda.

In the years following this movie, McHaters still hold this movie aloft as their Passion . . ., and seem to refuse to acknowledge a few simple issues.

One, Spurlock DID keep a food journal during those 30 days, but he refuses to publish it.  That matters because some have called into question his numbers at the end of the movie, such as a pound of sugar or 5000+ calories a day.  I guess that’s his choice, but it doesn’t add to your credibility if someone wants to verify the results of your experiment and you refuse to let them look.  If this movie is truly all about exposing McDonald’s to be as unhealthy as it is, what is there to hide?

Two, there have been experiments, some movies, and some studies (with proper organizational structure) that don’t come close to replicating his results.  In fact, when people eat appropriate portions of McDonald’s and make wiser choices for their meals, they actually LOSE weight.  In contrast to that, I once saw results from a study done at a university–which I tried and tried and can’t relocate, unfortunately–where students minimized physical activity consumed 6000 calories a day for 30 days (often having to end their days with high-calorie smoothies) and had similar weight gain but don’t have the same liver issues, which calls into question, what issues with Spurlock’s liver were pre-existing?

Three, and most of all . . . the movie is not accurate, and that invalidates Spurlock’s thesis, thus making anyone who cites this movie as a reason to avoid McDonald’s completely full of crap.  You cannot logically hold to a point of view when your primary reference is shown to be false.  And that sounds like a problem with some other documentarian . . .

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2 responses to “Documentaries That Lied to Your Face, part II

  1. Pingback: Taco Bell is My Hero | I hope you know what you're doing . . .

  2. Pingback: You’re Not as Insightful as You Think You Are | I hope you know what you're doing . . .

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