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Entries in Fat Head [2008] (1)

Thursday
Dec012011

Fat Head (2009)

Rise of the McLibertarian

There may be a compelling counter-argument to Morgan Spurlock's documentary, Super Size Me--which posits that a strict, 30-day McDonald's diet can lead to serious health issues and weight gain--but Tom Naughton's Fat Head is not it. It's a shame, too, because I'm genuinely curious as to how Naughton's theories would play out in real life. Because his experiment's rules are skewed to favor his anti-hypothesis, however, it's impossible to take anything in this film seriously.

Before we get to the message, let's look at the messenger. Within five minutes, Naughton's condescending, whiny tone (think Andy Rooney crossed with John Stossel) made me want to deflate Fat Head. Whereas Spurlock at least pretended to be a concerned and curious citizen at the outset of his sojourn in deep-fried hell, Naughton comes across as a bitter YouTube-er who was somehow personally affronted by a movie that came out half a decade before his own.

He seems to believe that media and government conspire on an hourly basis to restrict his freedom of dietary choice--a nefarious plot that seeks to cover up the fact that cholesterol is nothing to worry about and that vegetarians are some of the unhealthiest, most miserable people on the planet. Fat Head starts off as a 30-day challenge and rapidly devolves into an anti-government polemic, a bizarre bait-and-switch that wears out its welcome long before the hour-and-forty-four minutes is up.

The agenda and tone make it difficult to accept any of Naughton's supposed facts, and serve only to draw attention to the fact that most of his research seems to come from a handful of like-minded doctors and diet-book authors; most references to government studies are of two varieties: "But, you know, it's the government, so what do you expect?", and, "But, you know, lobbyists paid the government to alter their results, so what do you expect?" Hey, that may be true. But without any opposing viewpoints or attempts to appeal to audience members who might be clinging to their own common sense--as opposed to the Naughton's highly revered common sense of the collective--Fat Head just sounds bitchy and patently false.

I was also turned off by the subtle racism of Naughton's middle-aged-suburban-white-guy character. I can tell by his looks and surroundings that he's a middle-aged, suburban white guy, but he basks in the sitcom notion of what that lifestyle implies: Before his all-fast-food diet, his wife prepares what sounds like a lovely vegetarian meal--which, as we see in a "hilarious" montage, is picked at and discarded in favor of ordering a pizza ('cause vegetables are gross, you guys). Another scene finds Naughton resisting the urge to eat various menu items, in an attempt to illustrate that no one forces consumers to order food they don't want. The lady handing him fries and sundaes begins with a flat, American accent but quickly descends into an Indian one. Nice.

Enough about Naughton's personality. How did he rig the experiment?

I know very little of science, but it seems to me that if you're going to refute the findings of someone's experiment, the first step is to re-create it precisely and compare the results. In Super Size Me, Spurlock vowed to eat nothing but McDonald's three times a day for a month. He had to sample everything on the menu at least once, and could not engage in any exercise greater than that of the average American (approximately two miles of walking per day). Naughton eats at a variety of fast food establishments, including Jack in the Box and Boston Market, and cuts out French fries, non-diet sodas and, more often than not, buns and breading of any kind.

He makes a valid point in joining Spurlock's critics who say that the Mclab rat should have released his food log, but looking at Naughton's own food journal* it's easy to see where he got his fabulous lower-cholesterol, lower-weight results. One "lunch" consists strictly of an order of Chicken McNuggets, and in many cases, he goes for the "carb-friendly" option. At the beginning of the film, Naughton mocks people who say he'll lose weight at McDonald's by only eating salads, claiming that he's going full-bore into the fast-food experience. But he cheats anyway by eliminating the kinds of foods most people seek out at fast-food establishments.

He also goes for long walks six nights a week and engages in mild aerobic exercise.

So, you may ask, what is Naughton trying to prove, exactly? I don't know. Something about the evils of government stealing buying power from citizens of the free market. He cites the egregious case of McDonald's eliminating its Super Size portion shortly after Spurlock's documentary came out. But according to the corporation, it was part of a planned menu restructuring--resulting from studies showing that Americans wanted healthier food choices on-the-go. Whether or not you believe that, the point is Uncle Sam had nothing to do with Naughton's having to now buy an extra bag of fries--which he doesn't eat anyway--to get his fix. The people spoke (either through market research or ticket sales), and Mickey D's listened.

Perhaps the funniest part of Fat Head is Naughton's cave-man-like crusade against vegetarians. He and his expert interviewees suggest that people deprived of invigorating meat fats are more sluggish, depressed, and overweight (evil, evil grains and soybeans!) than those who partake of the cow in the way our women-clubbing ancestors did. Fair warning: my two issues with this are anecdotall and not based on anything in the documentary:

1. My brother- and sister-in-law have been vegetarians for a decade. They exercise regularly, eat balanced, sensible meals, and have more energy and ambition than I do--me, the slave to McRibs and thin-crust pizzas (more on that in a moment). They also look great--neither the dread-locked string bean caricatures of popular culture, nor the angry, spare-tire-sporting activists of Naughton's lore.

2. The beef, chicken and fish our ancestors consumed was not pumped full of hormones and preservatives, and was not comprised of vague, Frankenstein-ed parts from animals that had been genetically engineered to produce the plumpest cuts of meat.

The most upsetting aspect of Fat Head is the casualness with which Naughton brushes off the idea of fast-food as being addictive. I have no proof to back up what I'm about to say, other than my own experience as a life-time consumer of junk food, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that these mega-corporations (possibly in cooperation with world governments) have strategized, marketed, and lab-rat-ed their products to be as appealing and convenient as possible to consumers. Naughton doesn't seem to think that's possible, with his iron will and constitution. But enough people have suggested as much that it might have been interesting to dive into these theories (and, better yet, to debunk them).

Then again, maybe Fat Head is just brilliantly disguised anti-anti-propaganda. After enduring nearly two hours of Naughton's smug soap-boxing, I wanted nothing more to do with his or Spurlock's non-documentaries--nor did I want to think about fast food ever again. I vowed to hop on the treadmill and lose weight through a largely vegetarian diet. Of course, after the movie I had to jet off to a late-start at the office--which included a trip to the drive-thru and, inevitably, gobs of ambition-eroding secret sauce.

*I don't normally link to outside sources, but the versions of the log that appear in the film come and go so rapidly that it's difficult to read what they have to say--a wise move on Naughton's part.