Big Government and Big Food Give the Same Weight Loss Advice

05/12/2014 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2014
Steve Mack via Getty Images

In a stunning review of the new film FED UP -- one that draws the undeniable links between the food industry, sugar and the obesity epidemic -- the New York Times offered a disturbing observation: The dietary recommendations for weight loss coming from both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Beverage Association (formerly known as the American Soda Pop Association) are based on the same scientifically-unfounded dietary advice.

Should we be concerned? Absolutely! Should we be fed up? You bet!

The oversimplified notion that all calories are the same is the mantra espoused by both our government and the food industry. Yet any fifth grader can understand that 1,000 calories of soda will have profoundly different effects on the body than 1,000 calories of broccoli.

Sugar calories act differently than fat or protein calories in the body. Sugar calories drive food addiction, storage of belly fat, inflammation and fatty liver (which has now replaced hepatitis as the No. 1 reason for liver transplant). They also disrupt appetite control, increasing hunger and promoting overeating, and are biologically addictive. And sugar calories are the major contributor to heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia and Type 2 diabetes.

But Big Food is hell bent on confusing us with misinformation, propaganda and lies.

Even before FED UP movie hit theaters on May 9, the food industry was hard at work and running fast to confuse the issue.

At the head of the pack are the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and The Sugar Association.

The GMA put up a website a few days before the movie launched and bought up Google ads for "Fed Up" that directed people to their propaganda website, -- a site that purports to set the record straight.

To the average reader, their "facts" may seem to refute many of the film's central arguments and call into question its considerable evidence that Big Food has been complicit in the obesity epidemic.

The site even offers a "Take Action" section where you can "share" the facts with your social media networks. Here's the tweet they suggest you share with your friends: "Seen 'Fed Up'? Head to and get the real story about America's food industry."

But before you hit that "send" button, let's take a closer look at the facts embedded in their "true or false" quiz.

Quiz item #1: Food companies have caused the obesity rate to "skyrocket."

Food Industry Lie: "False"

They say, "Over the last decade, childhood obesity rates have dropped by as much as 43 percent, and obesity rates overall have plateaued."

Fed Up Truth: True

One study found a 43 percent decrease in 2- to 5-year-olds, while every other age group showed an increase or no change. The first question we should ask is: Why the heck are there obese 2- to 5-year-olds in the first place?

But here's the real truth. Obesity rates in children have more than tripled since the 1970s. And when the original study data that supposedly showed the decrease was re-analyzed by researchers from North Carolina, it showed no change in obesity rates in 2- to 5-year-olds. Because this time, the researchers looked at all the data instead of taking a small slice that showed an anomaly.

Here's an example of how the food industry (and the government) directly contribute to the obesity epidemic.

The poor are disproportionately affected by obesity, yet the food industry vigorously opposes any efforts to limit the use of food stamps for soda. Every year, the U.S. government pays for $4 billion of soda for the poor (10 billion servings a year) on the front end, and then pay billions more on the back end through Medicaid and Medicare to pay for the health consequences related to obesity and diabetes.

Quiz item #2: School nutrition budgets have been cut and given way to fast food.

Food Industry Lie: "False"

The GMA points to the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act as evidence that they are in support of improving school lunches. The bill provides for an additional funding of school lunches. The bill also ensures that more fruits and veggies will be offered, more food will have whole grains (whole grain Cookie Crisp cereal anyone?), eliminates full-fat milk options, reduces calories and saturated fats, trans fats and salt.

Of course, nowhere was the limiting of sugar mentioned in the bill. Nor did the bill seem to reflect the currently scientific evidence that full-fat dairy is likely healthier for kids than low-fat or skim.

Fed Up Truth: True

The movie, in fact, states there was an increase in school budgets. But how much? The bill provides for an additional six cents a day per lunch, the first increase in decades!

Due to both Democratic and Republican and food industry opposition, many of the most important provisions were left out of the final bill. Congress still counts pizza and French fries as vegetables!

More importantly, the bill didn't address the fact that 50 percent of schools serve brand name fast food including Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino's, McDonald's and more. And 80 percent of schools have contracts with beverage companies, making them dependent on their funding for sports and other school programs. Is this consistent with "healthy, hunger-free kids?"

Quiz item #3: The food and beverage industry voluntarily removed all full-calorie soft drinks from schools in 2006.

Food Industry Lie: "True"

Here's what the food industry has to say:

In 2006, beverage makers voluntarily removed full-calorie sodas from schools, agreeing to serve only bottled water, low-fat and nonfat milk and 100 percent fruit juice in servings no bigger than eight ounces. Serving sizes would increase to 10 ounces in middle school. In high school, low-calorie juice drinks, sports drinks and diet sodas would be permitted; serving sizes would be limited to 12 ounces.

Fed Up Truth: False

Big Food (Pepsi and Coke) point to their grand initiative of taking sodas out of schools. Sounds good. But let's examine the facts. Why did they do that? Was it really "voluntary"? Hardly. They were already in the middle of litigation aimed at forcing them to take sodas out of schools. When they saw an opportunity to stand next to President Clinton and his Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and to come across as solid corporate citizens rather than come across as bad guys in court, they simply chose the better PR opportunity!

And what about the drinks they left in the schools? They are only slightly less dangerous to health. Sugary juices filled with high fructose corn syrup, sports drinks, Vitamin Water and diet drinks. The average bottle of Vitamin Water has 33 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugar, slightly less than a 12-ounce Coke (39 grams). In fact, Coke, was sued over its advertising of Vitamin Water as a healthy drink.

Plus, diet sodas are linked to obesity and diabetes, too! So the low- or no-calorie options are not something to brag about!

We wouldn't allow vending machines with cigarettes in schools, so why would we allow vending machines with addictive sugary and chemical-laden drinks that are shown to cause childhood obesity?

Tom Freiden, M.D., the current director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has publicly stated that we should have no products in schools or government-funded institutions that promote disease. He even goes further to say we should restrict zoning to eliminate fast food and convenience stores anywhere near schools. If we don't allow drug pushers on the schoolyard, why do we allow foods that drive addiction and disease that now affect 40 percent of our children?

Quiz item #4: The food industry purposely advertises unhealthy foods to children.

Food Industry Lie: "False"

The food industry points to efforts to reduce junk food advertising to kids. Under the threat of regulation, they have made some insignificant tweaks.

Fed Up Truth: True

The fact remains that the average kid sees over 2,000 ads per year (some see up to 10,000 ads) for highly processed, sugary junk food and fast food. And the food industry spends between $2 and $10 billion per year advertising junk to kids. According to the Institute of Medicine's report on food marketing to children, the average child under 8 years old can't distinguish between ads and real life, and the average 2-year-old can identify brand name junk food in grocery stores.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on food marketing to kids calls out the food industry's practices of product placement on social media, kids' toys, games, songs, movies, celebrity endorsements and Happy Meals. Worse are the stealth practices on Facebook, Twitter, word-of-mouth campaigns, text messaging and the Internet.

Over 50 countries regulate food marketing to children. The Institute of Medicine concludes that, if the industry does not change its practices voluntarily, "Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift."

Quiz #5: Since 2002, America's food industry has introduced more than 20,000 new healthier product choices.

Food Industry Lie: "True"

Yes, it is true that the food industry has introduced more products they claim are healthier, mostly as the result of dialing up or down certain ingredients in highly processed junk foods. But these are still junk foods. As I say in the movie, "If you make junk food a little less junky, it's still junk!"

Fed Up Truth: False

Big Food cut some calories, trans fats, salt and sugar. But let's take a closer look. If you make a Pop-Tart with 10 less calories and a little less sugar or fat, it is still a Pop-Tart. If Oreo cookies have 150 instead of 160 calories per serving, is that real progress, or just good marketing? These products are still full of sugar, bad fats and processed ingredients. The basic rule to follow is that if a food has a health claim on the label, it is probably bad for you. Avocados and apples don't have ingredient lists. Stick with real food.

And as far as trans fat goes, the FDA recently ruled that trans fats were no longer considered safe as food additives. Previously, they required labeling of trans fat, but the food industry lobby ensured that if a product had less than half a gram of trans fat per serving, it could say "zero" trans fat on the label. Take Cool Whip, for example. It says "zero" trans fat on the nutrition label, but the ingredient list states: water, hydrogenated fat (trans fat) and high fructose corn syrup. There are scores of other misleading food industry manipulations and food health claims that are harmful.

And there is one more scary truth. Coca Cola sells 1 billion cans of Coke around the world every single day. They include healthier products in their portfolio for the appearance of doing good, while their main business is still selling sugar water in every corner of the globe except for North Korea and Cuba!

Quiz item #6: The food industry obscures important nutrition information on food labels.

Food Industry Lie: "False"

The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute have voluntarily created new guidelines to "police" themselves. That's like the fox guarding the hen house. Do we really think they will create guidelines that will hurt their profits? Can we trust their "Facts Up Front" or "Nutrition Keys" efforts to "clarify" food choices for consumers?

Fed Up Truth: True

The $1 trillion food industry is smart and stealthy. It co-opts consumer concerns and has preempted efforts by the government and the Institute of Medicine to come up with new food labeling guidelines. In a scathing analysis of the dubious food industry practices published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors pointed out the industry's new nutrition guidelines allowing for "Smart Choices" labels to be placed on Fruit Loops and Cocoa Krispies. Really? State legislatures litigated and forced them to stop this new and improved "Smart Choices" guideline.

The FDA has come up with new labeling guidelines forcing companies to put "added sugar" on the label. They also will remove "calories from fat" because fat is not the enemy we thought, and they will clearly report the total calories in a package (not just calories per serving when no one actually shares a 20-ounce soda). This is progress, but it stops far short of easy-to-understand, intelligent labels.

How about the stop light system used in Europe? Green means good for you. Yellow means eat with caution and red means eat at your own risk. Shouldn't a can of Coke have a warning label that states, "When used as directed may cause obesity, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, Type 2 diabetes and dementia"?

Quiz item #7: Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign has done little to encourage healthy eating habits.

Food Industry Lie: "False"

Michelle Obama has, in fact, done much to bring awareness and important initiatives to curb the spread of childhood obesity. The food industry's website in correct in stating: "Let's Move! has helped millions of Americans eat healthier and be more active. First Lady Michelle Obama launched an initiative to put 6,000 salad bars into schools. The Chefs Move to Schools program, launched by Let's Move! in 2010, partners schools with chefs around the country to collaboratively educate students about food and healthy eating."

I agree with all of this. But is it enough?

Fed Up Truth: True (sort of)

The unfortunate message implicit in "Let's Move!" is that the key to solving this epidemic is to get kids to get up and run around and play. It is true that movement is critically important to health and wellbeing. The average kid spends seven hours a day in front of a screen, and such sedentary habits are directly correlated with both poor health and obesity. But exercise alone isn't going to solve the problem.

Here's the sad truth: You have to walk for 4.5 miles to burn off one 20-ounce soda or run four miles a day for one whole week to burn off a super-size meal. You simply can't exercise your way out of a bad diet.

What Mrs. Obama originally meant by "Let's Move" was "let's take action on this issue." What the food industry heard was "it's all about exercise." The program should have been called, "Let's Eat Real Food and Let's Move."

The mantra of energy balance and "calories in/calories out" implicitly blames the fat person. The suggestion is, "If you weren't a lazy glutton you could lose weight."

At first, Michelle Obama came out guns blazing and focusing on food. But, perhaps under pressure from the food lobby, she dialed back that message significantly. One of the most telling scenes in FED UP is when she announces her partnership with food industry giants to take 1.5 trillion calories out of the food supply (that's about 14 calories a person per day or about a bite of food). The First Lady said we shouldn't blame anyone, not parents or the food industry. But when the facts are so clear, we must hold to account those responsible for producing and marketing the products that are killing our children.

In a recent conversation I had with a former Secretary of Agriculture -- a man who wanted to make real changes but found himself thwarted -- he lamented how even the head of our government's food policy-making institute could not implement changes because of the lock the food industry lobby and money has on Congress and the White House.

Quiz item #8: Today's generation of kids will live shorter life spans than their parents.

Food Industry Lie: "False"

The food industry's "Fed Up Facts" website claims that kids born today will live longer than their parents. Is this true? The assertion is based on a U.S. Census report, but Harvard scientists think otherwise. According to the CDC, reliable data suggests that by 2050, one in two Americans will be obese and one in three will have Type 2 diabetes. Is this really consistent with kids being born today living longer? Hardly.

Fed Up Truth: True

In a detailed scientific analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a group of respected scientists looked at all the data affecting projected life span and concluded that this is the first generation of Americans that will live sicker and die younger than their parents.

Quiz item #9: The food industry has removed 6.4 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace since 2007.

Food Industry Lie: "True"

Has the food industry voluntarily reduced calories in food? Yes. But does it matter? Heck, no! Certain calories make you fat. Sugar calories. Soda is the tobacco of the 21st century.

The food industry is smart. They hijack the conversation, making claims about doing the right thing and creating a healthier America, when in fact they are up to their same old dirty tricks. Instead of making meaningful changes, they confuse and confound the public with impressive-sounding numbers that little or no impact on the root causes of obesity and chronic disease.

Fed Up Truth: False

The food industry created the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a front group that focuses on "energy balance," espousing the scientifically disproven mantra that a calorie is a calorie and that simply reducing overall calories will solve our obesity and chronic disease problem.

Who is part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation? By now you can probably guess. It is headed by the CEO of Pepsi and the Grocery Manufacturers of America and includes Kraft, Nestle, Mars, General Mills, Coca Cola, Kellogg, Hershey's and more.

The problem is not only that we need to eat fewer calories, which many of us do. The problem is that sugar calories act differently in the body, triggering food addiction, increasing hunger, promoting belly fat storage, slowing metabolism and increasing the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Pulling 10 calories out of a Yoplait yogurt (which has more sugar than 2.5 Krispy Kreme donuts) is not progress; it's food industry manipulation -- manipulation that makes the problem worse by hoodwinking the consumer into believing they are doing something good for themselves and their families.

If you want to know who is telling the truth, go to see the film Fed Up at a theater near you and then decide for yourself. Don't believe the food industry propaganda.

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD

Join Dr. Hyman on his path to revolutionize the way we think about and take care of our health and our societies at, on Twitter, on Instagram @MarkHymanmd, and on Facebook.