So you think that opting for Lo Fat items at the market and hitting the gym will keep you in fighting form? Fed Up, an essential documentary narrated and executive produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, is here to tell you different. Zumba all you like, but that won't keep the toxic American diet from messing with your health.
The food industry, Fed Up wants you to know, is perpetrating a long-term epidemic in public health. Narrated by Couric, discreetly off camera but voice instantly recognizable, the film taps a panel of medical and scientific experts to lay out the facts. They are: obesity has become a problem not only in the United States (where on airplanes you compete with your neighbor's overlapping bulk) -- but globally, too, so for the first time it's outpacing starvation. Diabetes is on the rise, appearing, shockingly and without precedent, in American 10-year-olds. The culprit? The masses of sugar in its many guises sneaked into supposedly wholesome food. According to the experts on Fed Up, salad dressings, all-American corn flakes, and a host of other "innocuous" staples have added sugar hiding under names like high fructose corn syrup." "Sugar," according to Fed Up "is the new fat."
To back up a bit: the obesity epidemic kicked off, the film explains, after the McGovern report in 1977, when foods were re-engineered to be low in fat. Guess what? Without the fat these foods tasted nasty. So sugar was dumped in to make them kinder to the palate. Your average unwary shopper -- which means most of us -- are unaware as we ply the aisles that "half the fat" means "double the sugar." Sugar is not only a poison that drives heart disease and cancer -- "it's addictive," Dr. David Kessler asserts in the film. "In fact, sugar is more addictive than cocaine." Think of that when you next reach for that packet of Splenda for your coffee.
The Couric imprimatur, I'm guessing, must have aided in hooking some big fish to weigh in on camera, including Bill Clinton, and writer Michael Pollan. The film includes clips of the First Lady talking up exercise as a way to combat obesity. Just get moving! Yet the science marshaled by Fed Up indicates that exercise isn't the answer when 80 percent of the 600,000 items in groceries harbor added fat.
Junk food is also a class issue. Infuriatingly, it's disproportionately marketed to minorities and the poor; low-income 'hoods are food deserts. The right would have you believe that eating well is "elitist!" Your kids in public school might be lunching on nachos, fries, cheeseburgers, tacos, chili cheese. According to Michael Pollan, the schools are a place for the food industry to market their brands; Pizza Hut and the like oversee your child's nutrition. Coca Cola very generously offered to sponsor a study -- and found that Coke had nothing to do with obesity, nor do sugary beverages add calories and increase your diabetes risk, thank you very much.
In several difficult segments Fed Up zeroes in on a Latino boy from a low-income family fighting a losing battle with his weight and subjected to gastric bypass surgery. Clearly the filmmakers needed to give their story a human face, but to watch this family's victimization feels intrusive and exploitive.
Why, Couric demands in Fed Up, isn't our government doing more? Answer: the sugar industry is wagging the dog. U.S. sugar barons block the limits on sugar and our government has been complicit. The food industry has bamboozled the public, Pollan observes. It's in the business of making money, not keeping America healthy.
Last week at a beautifully orchestrated event, members of the Fed Up team took questions from an invited group of press. At the center was Couric, perfection in a smooth coif, white V-neck blouse, and black pencil skirt. She's smart, unassuming, and wears her celebrity like a second skin.
In making this film did she fear blowback from ad agencies? "I thought it was time to take stand on an important issue," said Couric, who confessed to having struggled with food issues when younger. "This was not my first rodeo and some things are more important than sponsors." She stressed that in fighting fat "we're talking about health not beauty. We're trying to shine a light on a disease-causing diet." Dr. Mark Hyman quoted Michelle Obama: "We don't want to demonize anyone." But we should, he countered. The greed of the food industry is at fault and the government is failing. "Michelle Obama came out all guns blazing, then got co-opted by politics."
But how will The Weinstein Company's Radius get the film's message out to the 99%, in particular lower-income folks hooked on summer's big action movies (as well as the dreck in the food concessions)? A spokesman said TWC plans aggressive rollouts for the film in 20 different markets -- mainly urban. There will be a Spanish language version released in the Southwest and plans to get the film into every school and community center. "We're wholly invested in the success of this film," he said, adding that since seeing it at Sundance, "I haven't had a soda."
The press conference wrapped on an upbeat note. The demonization of tobacco was cited as the big health success. The same, it was agreed, can happen for the battle against toxic eating. "For the first time I'm optimistic," said executive producer Laurie David. "The solution is in everyone's kitchen."
Correction: In a previous version, this post incorrectly named Michelle Obama among those interviewed for the film Fed Up.