April 12, 2007
Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America
By Francis, Charles A
Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America by Morgan Spurfock, Berkley Publishers, Penguin Group Inc., New York, NY, 2005, 308 pages. ISBN 0-399-15260-1
What sounds like a humorous book turns out to be deadly serious scholarship, and deals with a topic that could be deadly to our students. Don't Eat This Book is the written chronicle and background for the highly popular recent movie Supersize Me. When this was shown in the campus union at University of Nebraska in Spring of 2005, more than 600 people crowded the ballroom to view the film and question the author. By now Morgan Spurlock has talked to student audiences on more than 200 campuses. Perhaps those of us in education need to learn a lesson on how to reach today's students, and on how we can influence their behavior around one of the critical issues of our time: obesity in our culture.
Spurlock's film was an immediate hit when it premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2004. Everyone remembers the man in excellent health who put himself on a completely fast food diet in this case McDonald's for a 30-day period to see what the effects would be on his health. Carefully monitored by a team of three physicians and a professional nutritionist, he religiously continued to Super Size and consume what he calls junk food in spite of the advice of his medical consultants, excessive weight gain, and negative health indicators. As predicted, release of the movie resulted in a box office hit as well as a firestorm of controversy as those in the fast food industry responded with a vengeance. Herein lies the educational value of the project.
The obvious attention to an obesity problem and poor diets of many in this country are highly valuable for us to examine in courses in agronomy, economics and of course human nutrition. If the hip writing style and catchy anecdotes in a book like this can help college and university students connect with their own personal decisions about eating and exercise, that is a useful lesson that hopefully will help them develop lifelong habits as healthy food consumers. There is adequate documentation in 24 pages of notes and references on human nutrition and health to lead students to more in- depth reading on these important topics. Habits developed during college years can inform their choices for decades.
Higher order issues brought up by the book include the power of advertising, the connections between government agencies and corporate food companies, and the influence of industry on the political process. The book, the movie, plus discussions in class can promote critical thinking skills that help students sort out conflicting sources of information, differing opinions, and the importance of vested commercial interests in shaping information and messages they receive. The food companies, especially those selling fast foods, have an obvious stake in this discussion, and may use any available methods and arguments to discredit the author. As producer of the movie and author of the book, Morgan Spurlock has a vested interest in his future in media and his own credibility as the main actor and source of material for the book. This is a simple case study on a complex topic, and students must consider its value and validity compared to carefully replicated clinical trials with large numbers of participants. In addition, there are ethical issues to be considered as each individual student evaluates the sources of information, the methods used in the "experiment," and the ways Spurlock has chosen to report the results.
Don't Eat This Book must join two others in a valuable assessment of today's diets and nutrition. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser examined the entire fast food industry, its impact on nutrition, cultural habits related to food, economics, and social impacts on those who work in the industry. It is an equally entertaining trade book. Food Politics by Marian Nestle is a more scholarly treatment of our current food habits and nutrition, and how government and industry influence choices that are made in deriving food recommendations for people in the U.S. Taken together, these three books provide an accessible resource to our students, and can help them make rational choices that will influence their personal health for the rest of their lives. When agroecology is defined as "the ecology of food systems," this focus on marketing and consumption can be a valuable resource to complement what students read about the production, economics, and environmental impacts of alternative food systems. We could use some equally entertaining media both books and film to reach today's youth in a drastically different learning landscape than the one in which most of us grew up.
Charles A. Francis
University of Nebraska Lincoln
Copyright North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Mar 2007
(c) 2007 NACTA Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.