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Nancy Huehnergarth Headshot

Why All of Us Should Be Fed Up

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What does it mean when the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the world's packaged food and drink industry, puts out a defensive press release about a documentary before it is released? I'd say it means they are scared, and, after viewing the new film Fed Up, I can understand why.

Fed Up (Note: I am on the film's advisory board) takes an unvarnished look at America's unrelenting epidemics of overweight, obesity and related chronic disease by following the lives of several articulate and unusually introspective overweight children who struggle with bullying, their health and repeated attempts at weight loss.

The documentary, which was executive-produced by Katie Couric (who also narrates the film) and Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth) and directed by Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped), does not mince words. It places the blame squarely and fairly on a purely profit-driven food and drink industry and our government, which, instead of protecting consumers, has long been unusually solicitous toward food and beverage industry needs. As Harvard's Dr. David Ludwig unsparingly points out in the film, America's approach to the obesity epidemic has been a "systematic failure" because "we've placed private profit and special interests ahead of public health."

One of the first myths busted in Fed Up is the one that the food industry loves to perpetuate -- the gluttonous, slothful obese person. Various experts explain the insanity of blaming individual lack of willpower in a food environment so toxic that 69 percent of America's adults are overweight or obese. As University of California-San Francisco's Dr. Robert Lustig states, "We have obese 6-month-olds. Want to tell me they should diet and exercise?"

Another myth busted is the presumption that thin people, thanks to their weight control, are healthy. Turns out that a poor diet, high in sugar, salt, fat and plenty of junk food, can cause the same serious health problems for trim people that we are seeing in the overweight population. That in itself should be an eye-opener to any normal-weight consumer of the standard American diet who smugly thinks that he or she is not on the path to chronic disease.

Ultra-processed, empty-calorie food, with its irresistible holy trinity of sugar, salt and fat, is what Big Food does best, according to Fed Up.

"We now have the science to show you can make food hyper-palatable so we come back for more and more," says former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler. The fact that this nearly addictive, ultra-processed food is everywhere (including vending machines, cafeterias, offices, malls, supermarket end caps, corner stores, hospitals, magazine racks, gyms and schools) and is marketed relentlessly, 24/7, to both adults and children as young as 2 years old, only exacerbates the problem.

Author and journalist Michael Pollan explains how Michelle Obama's well-intentioned national campaign for healthier food had its legs knocked out from under it by the powerful food and drink industry, which pushed for more of a focus on voluntary agreements and exercise. According to Pollan, the First Lady was also drawn into a long, complicated discussion about making processed food healthier, but as he points out, "Junk is still junk, even if it's less junky."

One of the best segments in the movie is when Couric interviews Lisa Gable, president of the food industry-funded Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation on its much-touted, but unproven, claim that industry has eliminated 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace. When Couric asks Gable what has been pulled from shelves to eliminate those calories, she gets a series of industry talking points designed to bamboozle, but never an answer. Turns out that the elimination of 1.5 trillion calories won't make much of a dent. It equals a mere 14 fewer calories a day for every adult and child in the U.S.

The film's focus on sugar as the obesity epidemic's nutritional villain is the movie's only weak point. Added sugars in virtually every ultra-processed food (particularly sugary drinks) have certainly contributed mightily to overweight and chronic disease and must be reined in. But so have refined carbohydrates, which also turn to glucose in the body. And portion sizes are now so out of whack (e.g., the large fast-food soft drink of 32 ounces) that over-consumption is the norm. The biggest concern is that, if you give the food industry a singular scapegoat -- such as added sugars -- they'll find a way to manipulate the message, profit off of it, and still sell junk. Junk food will always be filled with empty calories and questionable chemicals, whether it's low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium or low-sugar.

The key to healthy eating is cooking and consuming real food that comes from the field, not the factory, and rejecting industry's ultra-processed junk like the plague. The creators of Fed Up have ensured that message comes through, loud and clear, and the movie will hopefully spark a return to the types of meals our grandmothers used to cook and serve.

Fed Up, which opened on May 9, is a highly entertaining, eye-opening documentary that every American should see. In the movie, U.S. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who has waged a 30-year campaign against obesity and food industry manipulation, admits ruefully that "the deck is stacked against being healthy" in America. He painfully recalls a visit to a preschool, where he found the children sitting in little red-and-white chairs that were labeled with the words "Coca-Cola." When asked how he feels about the food companies he's tried, often unsuccessfully, to regulate during his decades in the Senate, Harkin states what many of us have been thinking for years: "I don't know how they live with themselves."

This first appeared in Food Safety News. Ms. Huehnergarth is on the Advisory Board of 'Fed Up.'

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