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Fat Head: a Review

Written by Jesse Richardson on August 24, 2011 with 1 Comment

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Fat HeadI’m a huge fan of documentaries, especially those about food, health, and the physiology of the human body. I’ve recently been suggested by a number of users to check out “Fat Head,” a documentary by Tom Naughton made in response to “Super Size Me” by Morgan Spurlock. As noted multiple times by Naughton, the purpose of the film is committed to proving that everything you think you know about food is, well, probably a load of bologna.

A Couple Great Points

Naughton drives home a couple good points about people’s perception on food.

First, he brings out some good points about insulin and its relationship with fat storage on different people. The point was brief in the beginning and revisited a bit down the line, and it does a good job at explaining how our cells function in relationship with increased glucose levels.

Next up, he raises some great questions about “Super Size Me” details, namely the food log. Doing the math, he determined that going over 5000 calories (a claim mad by Spurlock’s doctor) wasn’t possible if Spurlock stuck to his own rules, even after super sizing multiple meals. He notes that a few journalists have tried to get the food log, and they, like him, failed at getting the real details. This definitely sparks disbelief behind the merits of Super Size Me.

Naughton also does a great job at exposing some of the “fear mongering” behind organizations like CSPI, who has come out strongly against Chinese food, Italian food, and Mexican. As he points out, people won’t stop eating fries, drinking soda, and ordering double cheeseburgers regardless of what you’ll see on TV. People don’t go to McDonalds for the “McBroccoli”, as he puts it. That being said, not only is there a freedom issue bundled in the argument, but there also is a startling assumption by CSPI that people won’t be able to make decisions for themselves. As an quick animation in the film describes, where CSPI man is talking fast food clerk and a consumer: “You’re evil, and you’re stupid.”

Finally, I really like how he was able to prove you can be healthy while eating fast food regularly. What it really requires, as proven by the film, is proper use of the head on your shoulders and an increase in exercise. By being conscious of the needs of our body, we can eat almost anything and come out on top. Not only was he able to become healthier on his fast food diet, but as a kid, he was able to stay healthy by this strange phenomenon called “playing outside.”

A Couples Points of Contention

Although the film was informative, I couldn’t help but stumble across a couple confusions and concerns.

My very first question was this: what the heck was this guy eating before going a fast food diet? I assume that he followed this lifestyle prior to making the film, which would explain why he was so passionate about it. If that’s so, I’m not sure how valid his argument would be that this diet was arguable “better” than others. There’s a quick point where he faces down a plate of tofu chicken, but he doesn’t really say he ate vegan before (and instead he orders a pizza). If anything, this diet is better than whatever he was eating before, but who knows what that was.

Next up, I was conflicted about the use of “Super Size Me” as the essential antithesis to this film, especially on the grounds of his finding. It was great that he wrote it as a response to the film, but I felt like if he wanted to really prove the documentary wrong, he should have eaten (and drank) the same thing. Essentially, I feel, Naughton doesn’t really prove that fast food itself is healthy (he mentions once, at the end of the film, that it is indeed  unhealthy). In fact, due to his irregular eating habits (relative to average consumers, who drink the soda and eat the fries) I’m not sure what conclusions he can really draw to fast food in general. After all, fast food involves a lot more than a burger or sausage McMuffin – people don’t come for the McBroccoli or lemonade, remember?

The critique of essentially drawing a false equivalency between Spurlock’s and Naughton’s is a bit clearer after reading the next point.

Another big problem I had with the film was his lifestyle – not that it was bad, but that it wasn’t emphasized much. He notes at one point he walks about 15 miles a week (6 nights of walking rather than his usual 3) in addition to resistance training 3 times a week. That is, especially when compared with many Americans, an active lifestyle. That being said, I wonder if Morgan Spurlock would have seen similar or better results if he had been exercising that much. In an article on Organic Soul, Obesity in America: The Culprit and the Cure, we make specific reference that lifestyle is one of the biggest determining factors for obesity and healthy living. Arguably, Spurlock’s and Naughton’s lifestyles were vastly different when making the two films, which may have led to vastly different conclusions.

Sprinkled in the rest of the film were other points of confusion for me. Take the first scene, for example. He heads down to his local mall (which happens to be in Burbank, CA, a place I lived for several years) and, because it took him a few hours to get a B-roll of obese people, he argues that this debunks the CDC statistic hat 1 in 4 people are obese. I cringed at the unscientific nature of the claim. Likewise, he makes a few generalized, uninformed claims about kids not walking home in this school district (once again, Burbank). As a student of this system, I was taken aback by these claims – I walked home everyday when I was in high school! Strange arguments and lines of logic seemed to be abundant throughout the film.

A Final Suggestion

So, do I think you should watch the movie (if you were wondering)? Yes and no, but mostly yes (mainly because I think people should develop their own opinions).

I think the filmmaker did a great job at highlighting certain inconsistencies, confusions, and misconceptions about obesity. As noted above, that was one of my favorite things about this movie – he proves you can actually be healthy while eating fast food, as long as you’re active. At the same time, he wraps up the film by advocating in favor of unprocessed, whole foods. However, as I mention as a contention, I feel he could have been clearer about the effect his lifestyle has on the diet he is pursuing. What’s more, he could have said “bologna” and “That annoys me” less, but that’s more of a stylistic note.

All things considered, I say go check out the film. It’ll get you really thinking about how our bodies work, what works with our bodies, and where responsibility really lies in obesity. Just keep in mind some of the above critiques – no documentary has all the answers, not Spurlock’s and not Naughton’s.

1 Comment

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  1. I think that you, along with other crtics, have taken the wrong meanings from the film. Naughton’s analysis of Super Size Me merely points out that logically, some of the points laid out are conflicting. he has used math to show the caloric totals purported in SSM are erroneous, given the details of the experiement, and the data showing how the caloric numbers were calculated is not available for review. His journey began with a refutation of SSM, but as he learned more about the current “standards” of healthy eating, his scope grew and became much greater than simply refuting SSM. What he found was that the commonly accepted knowledge regarding heart disease and diabetes seems to have some logical flaws.
    Naughton, as yoiu stated, understands that fast food is unhealthy. His assertion is that the vilification of dietary fat, and more so saturated fat, is not only false, but done with an agenda.
    As he began to question the accuracy of the currently accepted guidelines for healthy eating, his research lead him to discover the history behind fat, cholesterol and cardiovasuclar disase research and recommendations. The lipid hypothesis is specifically debunked, as well as diabetic recommendations, i.e. eat more carbohydrates for diabetics.
    Where his activity level is concerned, it should not be discounted that excercise is vital to health. No matter your diet or body composition, if you don’t move in some fashion, you will be unhealthy. Your body responds to being physically challenged in a positive manner. Regarding your assertion that Naughton’s lack of elaboration on his exercise is deceptive, Spurlock’s commitment to complete cessation of any excercise has a much greater influence on his physical deterioration than an uptick in Naughton’s current activity level and was mentioned similarky inferequently.
    While Naughton used his street filming to illustrate the CDC’s slight of hand regarding new BMI calculations and statistics, that was not meant to prove that people weren’t obese, his point was that people of genereally normal proportions are considered obese. In point of fact, I am 5’8″, 185 lbs. and curently 14% bodyfat. That places me firmly in the overweight category with a 44 chest and 31 waist while my overall physical health indicates in no way that I am unhealthy. I have used the information from this documentary and some further research to constuct a meal plan that is both satisfying and nourishing. It has helped me to become even leaner while reducing the time I have spent in the gym.
    The main point to be taken from the film has little to do with SSM. Rather, his purpose, perhaps changed in the process, was to illustrate that the current statistical deterioration in health A) is overstated by changing the metrics used in determining health, B) at least aided by the current recommendations by the same poeple to reduce fat intake and increase grain consumption, C) in part because the UDSA has a direct interest in maintaining funding for both itself and its grain producing clientele, D) federal research grants are plentiful for projects looking to support the established hypothesis while non existant for experiments to the contrary (pretty easy to achieve government expert “consensus” when you have control of the purse strings), and E) is based upon what appears to be a fuzzy hypothesis that used cherry-picked data to “prove” its accuracy.
    Overall, he made it clear that forcing your opinion of what someone should be doing because you think it is harmful to them is ridiculous. And trying to get a business to stop offering what someone wants because you want that person to choose what you want them to choose is the same premise. People are going to choose their lifstyles regardless of what you think. They are free to make their own choices, as are you.

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