Fed Up (2014) Review: A Take on the Obesity Crisis
As the age-old adage goes, you are what you eat. The Katie Couric-produced documentary explores the old-saying’s truth in the growing obesity epidemic. With interviews with some of Washington’s power players, past and present, the documentary weaves a tale of corruption and conflict of interest that dates back nearly three decades.While the cure to obesity has been attributed to “eating less and exercising more”, Fed Up looks behind the narrative created by the major food corporations to discover what is perpetuating this epidemic. Katie Couric’s narration provides essential background that teases out the roots of the current problem. When the 1970s and 1980s prompted an awareness of the health effects of fattening foods, major companies replaced fats with increased sugar to make the revised products palatable. More and more sugar has been added over the years so that most people are exceeding the recommended sugar quantities (about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons for men according to the documentary) by six or sevenfold.
What the documentary is quick to show is obesity is not just a uniquely American problem. Global obesity rates have increased at similar rates particularly in the Middle East. The myth of being able to combat obesity with willpower is misguiding individuals to the cause of the problem. With fad diets, targeting carbs or eating nothing but fruit for a week, the problem is not being solved.
Even with “healthy” foods, the amount of added sugar is astounding. From pure observation alone, whole grain cereals have around 10 grams of sugar, nearly a third of the daily allocation. Yogurts generally have a range between 10- 15 grams. Even the healthy foods have considerably more sugar than what appears to be. Part of the reason for which the sugar contents are less noted than other dietary ingredients is because of the successful lobbying of the sugar companies. Following a model similar to that of the tobacco companies of the 1970s and 1980s, the sugar industry has vilified individual habits instead of admitting the potential health hazards of excessive sugar intake.
The labels on food products omit the percent of daily sugar in the serving. The pressure of the sugar companies to exclude restrictions and regulations on sugar intake has reformed regulations attempting to fix this problem. Because of this, many Americans are focusing on dieting and losing weight based on inaccurate information. Studies funded by sugar and large food corporations have provided evidence that suggests that the impacts of sugar are insignificant. However, third party studies have created a body of evidence to prove otherwise.
Embroiled in the discussion is Michelle Obama, the Department of Agriculture, and Congressmen and Congresswomen from sugar lobbying states. Fed Up examines these public figures as examples of the way Washington politics have corrupted some well-intended reform endeavors. The politics of the food industry have caused Michelle Obama’s reform target to shift from companies towards promoting exercise to lose weight. The Department of Agriculture is trying to promote the corn and sugar industry that fosters the epidemic while raising awareness on health hazards. Congressmen and women have supported their states’ agriculture in order to be re-elected instead of protecting the people.
One of the fallacies of the documentary, though, is the understated inconsistencies in the children’s diet. While the home life is portrayed in adequate detail, the school lunches and the snacking where the children sometimes stray from the healthy meal plans are minimally covered. The documentary rightfully skewers public figures, governmental agencies, and lobbyists for the deception on what we eat, but minimally has individual accountability for personal health. This is one of the few faults of the movie.
The film attempts to be unbiased, but many of the major food corporations declined to be interviewed for the movie. This silence perhaps is even more evidence of the deception of the food corporations. Of the spokespeople who did agree to an interview for the film, their weak avoidant answers add to the mounting body of evidence that villainizes the food industry.
Fed Up uses scare tactics in the form of startling statistics and harrowing anecdotes of obese children. They work. The documentary says that by 2050, 95 percent of Americans are expected to be overweight or obese, and approximately one in three Americans will have Type 2 Diabetes. These aren’t the type of statistics that we usually hear. Recent studies show that sugar is more addictive than cocaine and that sugar substitutes (like Equal) are just as bad, if not worse, than regular added sugar.
The bodily harm of sugar is underplayed because of the “natural” quality of the ingredient. However, even when sugar has been out of favor with the public, the hazards of artificial sweeteners often haven’t been discussed. The digestive tract processes sugar substitutes even worse than natural sugars. Much like sugar, the sweeteners force the pancreas to release more insulin faster which transforms the sugar into stored glycogen. Sugar, like other addictive substances changes brain chemistry and makes you crave more. Sugar addiction isn’t a myth, but an understated fact.
Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the documentary involves the children and young adults facing severe health damage that they follow. With poor school nutrition, compounded with eating high sugared “healthy” foods at home, these children are unable to lose weight and have substantial health problems. When one of the boys follows a low sugar diet, he loses a significant amount of weight, but eventually relapses and gains it all back, showing just how hard it is to limit sugar when almost 80% of grocery store products have added sugar.
The documentary is a call to action both on micro and macro levels. There is a running comparison between the sugar industry and the tobacco industry. While sugar lobbyists have gained more power in the past three decades, the tobacco industry has been hurt by the increasing restrictions and regulations on cigarettes and other products. Modeling after the transparency on the warning labels of cigarettes, the documentary filmmakers call for a similar awareness on the effects of sugar. Of course, the gradual change on the tobacco industry is not lost on the congressmen and advocates interviewed. The type of permanent change in awareness and the amount added sugar in the may take the urging over multiple generations. However, the small changes made in daily life for individuals is easier to achieve. The documentary ends with advice for how to change your diet and reduce sugar intake.
For the activist, the health conscious, or the eager-to-learn, Fed Up, is a must see. Katie Couric’s interviewing skills dig deep into the issue and the guest commentators are well utilized to expose the deception of the food industry. This documentary has the potential to achieve the call to action that it prescribes as the statistics and accounts are haunting.
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