It used to be there was only one overweight kid in the class. Now there are seven or eight. So says a schoolteacher in Fed Up, a searing new documentary on the fastest rising epidemic in America: obesity. A blend of anecdotal testaments and sobering statistics, Fed Up leaves you wondering, like a regretful parent, where did we go wrong? As a culture, how have we lost the basic ability to feed ourselves?
Directed by Stephanie Soechtig, who also wrote the script along with Mark Monroe, and narrated by co-producer Katie Couric, Fed Up explores the questions of how and why the American girth has grown. The film personalizes its data-driven analysis by following the stories of several school children and their heartbreaking struggles trying to loose weight.
The film takes a hard look at the post-war food industry and how it has managed to cultivate in the American palette a taste for food products that have lots of calories and little nutritional value. Fed Up reveals the indoctrinating effects of bombarding children with junk food messages through the media -- television, movies, and after-market toys. With heroes like Shrek on the Twinkies box, kids learn to associate processed food products and fun from an early age. A priceless bit of footage shows Shelley Rosen of the McDonald's Corp at a hearing testifying: "Ronald McDonald never sells to children. He informs and inspires through magic and fun."
Since fat was condemned as an ingredient thirty years ago, the food industry has removed the fat and replaced it with sugar, the main culprit in the film. The body is naturally drawn to sugar for the energy it delivers in a quick fix. The sugar high is addicting, and especially hard to kick, because a quick intake of a lot of sugar (a can of Coke has 35 grams) is like mainlining glucose, as the soft drink has no fiber to slow down absorption. This causes a spike in insulin levels, whose burst of energy is followed by a crash. High levels of insulin also block the hormone that tells you you're full.
Many statistics that must be taken on faith are sited in the film. In the interests of not arming the skeptics, it might have been better to stick with demonstrable rates of known change, which are sobering enough, rather than projecting figures as fact into the future. Nonetheless, the collective numbers paint a sorry picture.
For example, Fed Up reports that some form of sugar as an added ingredient is present in 80 percent of the 600,000 food products that line the shelves of the center aisles of big grocery stores. These packaged goods -- boxed, bagged, canned and bottled -- are spread across the kitchen counters of the families followed in the film. One of the moms has never owned a cutting board.
One 14-year-old weighs over 400 pounds. His family tries to diet, but without much success. The teenager has a hard time giving up the foods he's supposed to avoid when they make up the menu at the school cafeteria.
Fed Up includes footage of President Ronald Regan in the 1980s talking about the cuts in federal funding he made to school lunch programs, which resulted in school cafeterias giving up on full kitchens and cooks. Instead, they resorted to lunches supplied by the food industry. To satisfy nutritional standards, ketchup was classified as a vegetable. Processed pizza, french fries and soft drinks replaced cooking by the cafeteria staff.
When Michelle Obama took on the child obesity epidemic and dug up the White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden, she made the food industry very nervous. Coke and Pepsi generously stepped in to help her. The program then shifted in emphasis, from educating kids about eating healthier food to advocating exercise. The slogan 'Let's move' was reinterpreted to stress exercise, not activism.
In yet another instance of the corrupting influence of money in politics, the American Academy of Family Physician's study of food and health accepted funding from Coke. Fed Up portrays a physician representative declaring that the link between diet and diabetes isn't conclusive. The film predicts that by 2050, one in three Americans will have diabetes. While the pharmaceutical industry will surely profit, the health care system may reel under the increased weight.
Footage includes call-to-arms from a variety of national figures that weigh in on the food fight, including Bill Clinton, Michael Pollan, Michelle Simon, and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who comments that the food industry is behaving the way the tobacco industry did 30 years ago. Bittman says, "Years from now we're going to say, I can't believe we let them get away with that."
Fed Up makes a convincing argument that through misguided policies, manipulative advertising, and unregulated food product production, the American public is allowing itself (and its children) to be subjected to a lethal rate of sugar ingestion.
The good news is that we the customers have the power to make change, as the grassroots local food revolution has proven. The sugar industry is in the business of making money, but you don't have to buy their products. Have a carrot instead.
Fed Up opens in theaters on May 9.
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