The movie Fed Up is a very good introduction to the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic. I had heard references to the movie several months before it came out. Several people brought it to my attention, as well. Here’s what I saw.
Fed Up is a well-produced documentary with some narration by Katie Couric, but more cutting from scene to scene in which people spoke for themselves. In some cases there was an unseen interviewer, presumably Couric. The movie alternates between discussing the underlying problem that increased sugar consumption has caused obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other problems, the political and economic factors that have created and exacerbated the problem, and the lives of several young people struggling with horrible weight issues due to the sugar in their diets. There are an array of interesting graphics interspersed that illustrate points nicely, such as the comparisons of standard calorie content to supposed “lower calorie” food products which still have the same amount of sugar, the metabolic villain.
The presentation of the biology was incomplete and oversimplified, but what was presented was accurate. As with several of the books I’ve read, the focus is on the the origin of pathologies, in particular obesity and metabolic syndrome. The movie explains with simple graphics that sugar consumption forces your body to make and store fat. The movie documents the amazing increase in sugar consumption since the 1970s, both directly as sugar-based food and drink, and indirectly as added sugars in processed foods. There’s no discussion of low carb, high fat diets, but I didn’t expect that. That may have contributed to an odd discordance in one section of the film, in which they talked about using the fat derived from lower fat dairy products to make cheese as if eating the cheese was a health issue. Lactose sugars left behind in the skim milk are the problematic component. High fat cheeses are a source of the healthy fats I discuss elsewhere. The movie also talked about overconsumption of calories, without explaining adequately that a high sugar diet which elevates insulin causes the overeating and that in an elevated insulin condition fats and proteins get stored as fat as well as the sugar itself.
One illuminating bit of biology was the description of an experiment done with cocaine-addicted mice. The mice were given a choice of sugar water or more cocaine. Almost all the mice preferred sugar water, despite their addiction. This matches other claims I’ve seen to the effect that sugar activates the same brain centers as do heroin and cocaine. There was no mention of how the unfortunate mice were made into cocaine addicts or whether they were given the option of a detox program after the experiment.
There are a lot of people in the movie, making points in various ways, sometimes ones they don’t intend to if they represented the interests promoting processed food and drink. Gary Taubes commented to me that there was kind of wide net of people interviewed, hence things like the odd cheese segment. Gary is a science writer who’s arguably the single most important figure in changing people’s thinking about diet and health, including mine. He’s on several times, as well as pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig of “Sugar, the Bitter Truth” fame. The most compelling figures are the obese kids and their families who are stuck in a hole from which there’s no way out. One poor child ends up getting bariatric (stomach restriction) surgery. There are interviews and video footage of an array of experts and political figures. The one scientist interviewed who does processed-food-industry-funded research did an amazing job of sticking his foot in his mouth, then not being able to talk at all, when asked a simple question about sugar’s effect on the human body. It was also pretty striking to hear a former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, agree that we’ve gone down a bad road. There was a cameo by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona in support of the movie’s message of sugar toxicity.
I learned the calories in/calories out dogma is even more of a cop-out than I realized. You’ve all heard that calorie input control and exercise are the path to weight management, which we’ve learned elsewhere on this site is biologically incorrect. That message is much more actively pushed by the food industry than I realized, but of course that takes them off the hook. One of the most striking examples they presented of the industry’s guiding hand is Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. When she started that, it was more diet-focused. The food industry jumped right in with an offer to help out. The initiative has morphed into a more exercise-focused program that simply repeats the USDA’s diet and exercise guidelines, which led to this problem in the first place.
Maybe even more surprising is how effectively the food industry appears to have taken over the school lunch program. Processed foods and sugary beverages dominate most school lunches with lots of company brand names visible, at least in the scenes in this movie. They showed how the food industry lobby successfully derailed attempts to improve the quality of food served–the infamous classification of tomato sauce and french fries as “vegetables.” When Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, was asked about that classification, he commented those items weren’t considered vegetables in his house, which also suggested the limits of his authority in the matter.
There was a very strong theme opposing processed foods. The origin of the modern processed food industry was traced back to the Senator McGovern-led Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which produced the wrong-headed report “Dietary Goals for the United States.” To meet the low fat diet goals of the report, enshrined in the USDA Food Pyramid, the fat needed to be removed from the food. Dr. Robert Lustig commented (again) in his interview that to avoid food that tasted like cardboard, the food industry needed to add something; sugar. All this requires processing of the food. Taking the fat out of food, then adding sugar and salt is essentially a manufacturing process. Misguided public policy gave an enormous boost to the processed food industry, which is now huge. That industry tries to protect itself, as do the primary agricultural groups producing the materials that feed that industry. And the USDA aids and abets. No one means people ill health, but the interests are tangled and complicated.
One section of the movie did a very good job of drawing an analogy between the effects of tobacco and sugar, and the respective industries marketing of and lobbying for their products. Marketing of high sugar, processed food to children pervades our media. The movie asked why that’s any more acceptable than marketing tobacco products to children.
Overall, the movie is very interesting and informative. It takes a strong stand, but presents its case with nuance and poise. There are several scenes where the message is clear. What you view on the screen speaks for itself. No narrative hammers home the point. Everyone who watches this movie with an open mind will come away with a lot to think about.