Don’t Eat This Book

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in my opening editorial, I firmly believe that most people who care about good food know that junk food is bad for them. How can you not know that fact? What worries me, and apparently, also worries Morgan Spurlock, is that even though we all know this to be true, people are still cruising through the drive-through and eating McJunk. Even after seeing SuperSize Me, Spurlock’s 2003 documentary, we’re still putting crap into our bodies in place of food.

Don’t Eat This Book is even more loaded with information than Spurlock’s film. In many ways, it’s easier to digest (heh!), as you can take your time, set the thing down, or go back and reread all the interesting bits. Which you need to do on occasion, because Spurlock really writes in the same way that he talks – fast and furious. This can be amusing, or a bit overwhelming, and after the fifth or sixth Simpson’s-esque “mmmmm… food reference” comment, even a bit annoying.

What he does do is give you facts. All the stuff he relays onscreen during his 30-day McDonald’s diet in SuperSize Me is right there in black and white. In fact, Don’t Eat This Book could almost be considered the literary companion to the film, as Spurlock is able to give more detail about what he went through during the 30 days of the documentary, as well as the reaction to the film after the fact, particularly the reaction by the bigwigs at McDonald’s and the various ways that company tried to control the publicity the film got, especially in countries with a smaller, more concentrated market such as Australia and Japan. The Subway chain, clearly not getting Spurlock’s message of “all junk food = bad”, and hoping to divert former McDonald’s customers to their supposedly healthier options, tried to strike a deal to give away copies of the SuperSize Me DVD to customers who purchased $15 or more of their food. Spurlock quickly put the kibosh on this deal, proving his intention to be true to his message, as the deal would have made him a cool $2.5 million. He is also particularly skeptical of the “healthy options” offered by many fast food chains in the wake of SuperSize Me’s popularity, and shows how, in many cases, they are no healthier than the deep-fried, chemical-loaded concoctions those same chains are known for.

The printed format also allows Spurlock to touch on topics that the time constraints of the film did not allow. He has no love for the US Food and Drug Administration’s Food Pyramid (which has since been updated), and he takes special exception to charity organizations, such as Ronald McDonald House, set up to boost brand recognition and favourably influence the reputation of McDonald’s as a proud member of the community.

No organization is really safe from Spurlock’s cynicism, and he spends a lot of time showing the influence of food advertising on children and discussing school lunch programmes and childhood obesity. He shows how chains like McDonald’s work hard to hook kids from an early age to ensure they become life-long consumers.

McDonald’s and other chains make no secret of the fact that kids are their primary targets. “We have living proof of the long-lasting quality of early brand loyalties in the cradle-to-grave marketing at McDonald’s and how it works,” James McNeal, a well-known kids’ marketing guru an the author of Kids As Consumers, has said. “We start taking children in for their first and second birthdays, and on and on, and eventually they have a great deal of preference for that brand. Children can carry that with them through a lifetime.”

Ultimately, Spurlock tells us what we all, intrinsically, know – junk food is bad. It causes heart disease, diabetes, obesity and possibly cancer. He does everything he can to shower his reader with information, to guide them towards making better, healthier choices. Essentially, if you enjoyed the movie, you’ll probably love the book, and it might just be the push some people need to move towards a healthier diet.

There is, however, the risk of “preaching to the choir”. As with most books possessing a political or moral bent, people tend to read things that reflect the point of view they already hold. That is, people who eat at Mickey D’s three or four times a week aren’t going to want to hear the message Spurlock is sending, and probably wouldn’t pick up the book in the first place. Watching a film is less of a time commitment than reading a book, especially one loaded with facts and references and appendices, so a lot of people might figure that since they saw SuperSize Me, they really don’t need to read Spurlock’s follow-up.

It is clear is that Spurlock is fighting a huge war, and that he is making gains. What he wants each of his readers to know is that they can make those same gains, by making better, more informed choices. Will the world take their food dollars elsewhere, will they start cooking at home, demanding better choices in their school cafeterias, or speaking up when giant food corporations advertise to their children? Or will we become, as health experts are now predicting, a culture of obese people, riddled with heart disease and type 2 diabetes, who can no longer expect to live longer than our parents?

I know, and Morgan Spurlock knows, that we all know better. We are all aware of what junk food does to our bodies, to our culture, to our society. The question is, will we take that leap and do anything about it?