"I don't want that to happen to me," my 9-year-old son whimpered with tears streaming down his face. We'd just finished watching the documentary, Fed Up - which targets the childhood obesity epidemic and the role the food industry plays in marketing unhealthy foods to children. Motherhood provides a myriad of situations where I am faced with supplying just the right words to comfort my son in times of despair. However this time I was well equipped with what to tell him.
"I have good news, sweetheart, it doesn't have to..."
Here in LA County where we live, nearly 1 in 4 children are obese. It seems a staggering statistic but one need only walk through the school halls of Los Angeles or visit a local mall to see that the kids are becoming more and more overweight. In just over the last three months, I've noticed my son, Noah, starting to put on weight, and my older daughter who is slender, mentioned that he was using his lunch money to buy candy and cookies from the vending machine at their elementary school. The hot lunch bar consisted largely of hamburgers, fries, soft drinks and packaged cookies. I'd get up in the morning and notice that Noah's cereal box was emptier than it was just the night before. I was finding candy wrappers at the bottom of the trash bin in the bathroom.
My son was sneaking food and it was starting to show.
As much as I wanted to think that he was going through a phase, I knew what was happening. His story was similar to mine. As a child I knew that losing twenty or so pounds would help me move faster on my high school cross-country and basketball teams, as well as qualify me for those "skinny girl" jeans my girlfriends were wearing. But no matter how many times I dieted (Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, even Optifast at the age of 11) my compulsion to "want more" food - namely those items which I call "recreational" foods (cookies, cakes, donuts, ice cream, brownies) comforted me in a way only the alcoholic or drug addict may understand. But it wasn't just me. My mother died at the early age of 49 from a stroke. She was a Type II insulin-dependent diabetic who was confined to a wheel chair due to neuropathy in her feet for the last year of her life. She wasn't morbidly obese or what we'd refer to as "Gilbert Grape" fat when we were joking about the battle-of-the-bulge, either. But I did grow up watching VHS-recorded episodes of All My Children and Oprah with her when she was home from work - Diet Coke in one hand, Cheetos or Good n' Plenty candies not too far away from the other.
What's painful to internalize now nearly 20 years after her death is that she knew better. My mother knew the damaging effects of sugar on the pancreas. She knew to stay away from regular soda and juice - "A waste of calories!" she'd say. At the time of my mother's death, she was the Associate Dean for the School of Nursing at UCLA. She'd spent nearly 20 years there, first as an ER trauma nurse before crossing over to administration and climbing the ranks and shaking the hands of future nurses on their graduation day. My mother knew that eating sugar the way she did was killing her. But she couldn't stop.
What's compelling about Fed Up, is that it affirms through scientific evidence that it is in fact possible to be addicted to sugar. Dr. Mark Hyman explains in the film that the effects of cocaine on the brain and sugar on the brain are largely comparable - but that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine. Even more eye-opening was to learn that the calories from sugar are far more damaging than the calories from other foods we ingest. "A calorie is not a calorie." affirms Dr. Robert Lustig in the film. The simple notion of "Calories in - Calories out" wasn't as accurate as we once thought.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has already counterpunched this film with its own "fedupfacts.com" website, though never directly addresses the amount of unnecessary sugar in our foods today. The film hits the food industry directly between the eyes. While it offers a controversial look at the government's role in the perpetuation of the obesity epidemic, it goes further to suggest what we can do as a collective to raise awareness of the damaging effects of increased sugar consumption for our current and future generations. (A 10-day sugar challenge and social action campaign is available on their website.)
I've been privileged to work among public health professionals committed to eradicating the childhood obesity epidemic throughout Los Angeles County. The ways we target obesity prevention spans breastfeeding mothers, childcare centers and schools, to parent collaboratives, churches and community based organizations. Even the restaurants we frequent and the grocery stores where we buy our food are on the radar so as to incorporate healthier options to consumers. There's still much work to be done, but the movement to counter this extraordinary epidemic is underway here in Los Angeles.
I comforted my son that night by telling him that becoming obese like the children segmented in the film wasn't where he was headed because we could make simple changes, one day at a time, starting with identifying some of the healthier foods he liked without all the sugar and getting off the Xbox from time to time and out on his bike.
The following morning as I prepared his brown bag lunch, he entered the kitchen with an inquisitive look on his face, "Now you are going to make something healthy right? Because that movie last night was a warning." I giggled to myself -- my little man. I realized just how much the film hit home not only for him, but for me as his mother.
"Absolutely, Noah. You and I are in this together..."