SUPER SIZE ME
SUBJECTS — U.S./1991 – present; Health; Medicine;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Taking Care of Yourself;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility.
Educationally Enhanced Version:
Age: 11+; MPAA Rating — PG for thematic elements, a disturbing medical procedure, and some language; Documentary; 2005; 100 minutes; Color;
Available from Amazon.com.
Morgan Spurlock ate only food from McDonald’s for 30 days: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He was thoroughly tested by doctors before he started his “diet” and periodically tested throughout the 30 days. By the end of the experiment, the changes in Mr. Spurlock’s blood chemistry and the stress on his organs approximated the liver failure seen in advanced alcoholics, his cholesterol had risen to dangerous levels, and he had gained 24 lbs.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Super Size Me provides a humorous way to supplement health class curriculum on nutrition, the dangers of convenience food (including meals at fast food restaurants), and the effects of advertising on consumer choices. The film is an opportunity to introduce the concepts of “motivated blindness” and the “bias towards normalcy”, and to apply them to decisions to eat convenience foods.
“The Fastfood Supper” by Jacob Thompson
After showing the film, display this image to your class and ask “What famous painting is the
artist trying to remind us of? What does that add to the message of this picture?
The painting is reminiscent of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci in which Jesus is shown eating with his disciples for the last time. The arrangement of people eating while sitting in a line at a table that is covered with a cloth which extends below the level of the table hiding their legs, as well as the three panels in the background, are features taken from Da Vinci’s painting. The fact that the picture recalls “The Last Supper,” a painting with a serious religious message, tells us that the artist is trying to say something important. Since the painting relates to the “the last” meal that Jesus had with his disciples, the immediate threat posed by the Angel of Death is emphasized.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
Introducing the Film:
Tell students that the movie shows some of the risks of eating convenience food including meals at fast food restaurants. No further introduction is necessary.
After the Class Watches the Movie:
Combatting Motivated Blindness and the Bias Toward Normalcy
After the film is completed:
Show students “The Fastfood Supper” and ask the questions below the picture.
Introduce students to the concepts of “motivated blindness” and “the bias towards normalcy” either by giving them TWM’s handout Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias: A Brief Introduction or by covering the same information in a lecture. The photograph below is helpful in conveying these concepts.
The application of motivated blindness to the overconsumption of fast food and convenience food is obvious. The application of the normalcy bias requires a short explanation. In the context of eating a diet composed mostly of convenience food, the word “normalcy” in the term “normalcy bias” refers to the continued good health of the consumer, despite the ill-effects of fast food and other convenience food. This is especially strong in teenagers who often believe that they are indestructible and that their good health will continue no matter what they put into their bodies.
Teachers should note probably no one except Mr. Spurlock has eaten at McDonalds three times a day for 30 days and that therefore the speed with which the fast food affected his blood chemistry and his liver are not something to worry about. However, teachers should also note that many people eat convenience food two or three times a day for years and that Mr. Spurlock’s experiment suggests that eating convenience food (including meals at fast food restaurants) over a long period of time will cause similar changes.
Ask students to develop strategies for breaking through a friend’s motivated blindness and bias toward normalcy with respect to the intake of convenience food. Then ask students what techniques might work for themselves. One idea is for students to make a copy of “The Fastfood Supper” and glue it to one of their notebooks. [TWM hereby authorizes the reproduction of “The Fastfood Supper” for the purpose of reducing the consumption of convenience foods, including copying the picture and attaching it to notebooks.
Relating to the Issue of Who Bears Responsibility
When People Continue to Consume Convenience Food
Engage the class in the following discussion:
1. Most people know that convenience food (CF) is loaded with salt, sugar, and fat. They have heard that CF is a substantial factor in causing the obesity epidemic, the second leading cause of preventable death. List the facts that affect the answer to the following question: When a consumer eats fast food from a restaurant like McDonald’s or Burger King or buys convenience food in a store, who is responsible for the deterioration in the consumer’s health caused by eating that food? Is it the consumer or is it the company that runs the restaurant?
[Start by asking the students what they think the facts are. For each important fact, write one to three-word notes on the board using a “T” chart with the facts supporting the consumer’s responsibility on one side and facts supporting the company’s responsibility on the other. Have students write the details of the factors in their notebooks.
The list should include at least the following facts. Students might come up with more. Write the underlined headings on the appropriate side of the “T” chart.
(1) Consumer Decides — People are not forced to eat convenience food or to go into a fast food restaurant.
(2) Advertising/Marketing — Convenience food manufacturers and fast food restaurants try to sell as much food as they can. They use a number of marketing tactics including advertising aimed at children, pricing structures aimed at getting people to purchase food they don’t need (a good example is supersizing, the increase in portion sizes for just a small increase in price), and advertising aimed at subconscious urges and desires (like the desire to be cool and with the “in crowd”).
(3) Nondisclosure — Convenience food manufacturers often do not fully disclose the dangers of the foods they serve. Frequently, they lie and dissemble to hide how unhealthy their food really is.
(4) Ersatz Food — Convenience food manufacturers manipulate the food to make it taste better, to make it less expensive, and to add to its shelf life in ways that make the food more dangerous and less healthy.
(5) Cheap — CF is often cheap, and there is a benefit to consumers in having inexpensive food available to them.
(6) Tasty — CF often tastes good, and consumers like that.
(7) Profits — The CF companies make a large profit on the food they sell.
If the discussion stalls, the questions set out below may get the discussion going again.
A. When the industry creates a desire for the product through advertising, does it have some responsibility for what happens when people try to satisfy that desire? If so, what is the extend to that responsibility?
B. Advertising plays upon people psychologically in ways that are not immediately apparent to adults and to children, especially young children. Should the industry which benefits from that advertising, pay for some of the damage to which their advertising contributes?
C. The convenience food companies are not up front in their advertising about the dangers of their products: the trans fat, the saturated fat, the sugar, the salt and the extra calories. For example, it is known that trans fats clog arteries and cause heart disease. The trans fat in convenience food is mostly man-made. A chemical process is used to convert unsaturated fat to saturated fat. If a fast food restaurant advertises heavily, trying to get people to buy its product, claiming that it tastes good, and then puts trans fats into it to increase shelf life, doesn’t that restaurant have a responsibility to warn the consumer that there are substances in the product that may be harmful? Is this also true of convenience food makers who put high amounts of salt, sugar, or fat in the food?
D. What about the fact that convenience food companies do not tell the truth about the health effects of their food? Remember what Mr. Spurlock found when he tested the data posted on the McDonald’s website.
E. Who makes the final decision to purchase the food?
F. No one has time to check out the health benefits of all the food that they eat. How can the consumer be held responsible?
2. Once the list includes at least the six factors described above, ask for an answer to the question of who is responsible, the consumer or the company. Another way to prase the question is: What about this class? You’ve been warned and are now educated consumers. When a student from this class goes into a fast food restaurant, who’s responsible?
TWM suggests that the strongest answer is that there is responsibility on both sides.
3. Tell students to imagine their class is a congressional committee responsible for recommending what the government should do to fight the obesity epidemic and to regulate the convenience food industry. Tell the class that this will be somewhat like the government’s campaign to reduce smoking. The plan should be based on the extent of responsibility that the consumer or the industry bears for the harm caused by eating at places like McDonald’s and Burger King. It should be practical and effective.
Here are some ideas about general ways to approach the problem. The class can add to this list and must determine how best to implement these ideas. Possible solutions might include:
- a sales tax on fast food to pay for PR campaigns to limit consumption, to defray the increased medical costs of those who eat convenience food, or to subsidize fresh food consumption; the problem with this approach is that it would be very hard to determine which restaurants served convenience food, so the tax would have to be on all restaurants;
- limits on restaurant hours;
- limits on the age of customers;
- requirements that warning labels be placed on food wrapping and menus;
- requirements that alternative healthy choices be offered;
- discounts for students who choose healthy food;
- prohibition on advertising or limits on advertising, such as limits on advertising directed at children (see question #3 below);
- creation of a well-designed PR campaign to convince people limit their consumption of convenience food;
- prohibitions on super sizing and other marketing devices designed to increase consumption and therefor sales;
- limits on the calorie content, salt content, and fat content; and
- regulation of the way in which types of foods that can be sold, e.g., all meat must have a low fat content; all meals must have a salad, and a cooked green vegetable.
Briefly summarize each suggestion on the board. When the creativity of the class has been exhausted, have the class debate whether each proposed solution is just, practical to implement, and effective. Then let the class vote on which regulations to adopt.
4. As an alternative to question #2, ask the following question: The fast food industry spends billions of dollars each year in advertising. Should this be prohibited or limited in some way? Does your answer change for advertising geared toward children? Should Ronald McDonald be banned?
A good discussion will include the following:
Points for regulation or prohibition of advertising by fast food restaurants: It has been determined that too much fast food (even a moderate amount of fast food) is bad for your health. It is especially bad for children. The companies use advertising to create a desire for their food. The techniques used by marketers and advertisers are often subtle and based on subconscious drives that we are not even aware of. They do not disclose what is in the food (like trans fats and HFCS), and they don’t warn of the dangers of eating their food. For this reason, advertising should be regulated to require adequate disclosures and warnings about the dangers of fast food. The argument for prohibiting advertisements aimed at children is much stronger than for advertising aimed at adults. Children, especially young children, are very susceptible to advertising because, in their innocence, they can’t critically evaluate what they are hearing and seeing.
Points against regulation or prohibition of advertising fast food restaurants: If you distort the marketplace by too much regulation, the marketplace loses its efficiency. It is up to people to decide what they put in their bodies. It is not up to the government to tell them what to eat. (Note that the First Amendment does not stop the government from regulating the advertisement of commercial products. In other words, if society decides that advertising a product needs to be regulated for an important public good, the First Amendment does not prohibit that regulation. This is the basis for limits on tobacco advertising.)
5. Should fast food outlets be invited onto a high school campus to sell food to students?
The general consensus is that this is not a good idea because it promotes the consumption of fast food by students. However, kids may disagree. This is a great question for debate.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See Discussion Question #1.
1. When an adolescent (ages 11 – 18) makes a decision about how to take care of his or her body, including weight and nutrition, who are the people who will be affected by this decision? (We call them stakeholders) Note that some of the stakeholders may not yet be alive.
Stakeholders include the adolescents themselves (that means you!), spouses, siblings, children, parents, employers, and friends. All of these people are affected by how well a person takes care of him or herself. These decisions are especially important for adolescents because they are growing and laying the foundation for their future health.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Some of the discussion questions can serve as writing prompts. Additional assignments include:
1. Research three of the health problems that Morgan Spurlock faced in his 30-day fast food marathon. Write an essay in which you present your findings and support your conclusions about how the problems he faced in his junk-food diet could possibly be mitigated by moderation. For example, is it safe to eat at a fast food restaurant once or twice a month?
2. Write an opinion essay evaluating one of the following statements:
- the convenience food industry (including fast food restaurants) should be held responsible for the health crisis faced in America today;
- personal health is the responsibility of the individual and the convenience food industry (including fast food restaurants) has no responsibility for the health of people who eat its products;
- the convenience food industry (including fast food restaurants) should be taxed to help pay for the added cost to government health care programs caused by the consumption of its products;
- marketing techniques used by the convenience food industry (including fast food restaurants) should be regulated by government legislation;
- government subsidy should help poor people gain access to healthy food.
Use facts to support your conclusions. Cite your sources.
3. Reflect on your own eating habits. Look mindfully at what you eat in a given day and write about whether or not health factors play any role in your food choices. Conclude your reflection with comments about how your habits would change were you to take into account some of the ideas presented in the film.
BRIDGES TO READING
Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America by Morton Spurlock, 2005, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. Mr. Spurlock’s style is breezy and irreverent and will appeal to young adults. In his book,ƒ he repeats and supplements the information provided in the film. A few sections give some of the background behind the production of the movie. TeachWithMovies.org recommends this book highly.
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, 2001, Harper Perennial — This is the pioneering best selling classic. The fast-food industry hasn’t changed much since 2001.
Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson, 2006, Houghton, Mifflin, Boston — Designed for adolescents, this book updates Fast Food Nation.
The Jungle (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by Sinclair Lewis with a foreword by Eric Schlosser. This was the first exposé of the meat industry. President Theodore Roosevelt read this book and was interested to find out if the charges made by Mr. Lewis were true. He appointed a commission to investigate and they reported that it was. Outraged, T.R. pushed legislation through Congress trying to reform the industry. However, many abusive practices remain.
Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser, 2003, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York — This is an excellent and readable book.
In addition to books described in the Bridges to Reading Section, the websites which may be linked in the Guide, and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation for this Lesson Plan:
Fat-Proofing Your Children … so that they never become diet addicted adults, by Vicki Lansky, 1988, Bantam Books